THE Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, died on 22 August 2014. People mourned him as a great public intellectual, a man whose quarrels, writings and conversations created a commons of ideas for democracy. Ideas need sustenance, a language, a set of metaphors, the enzyme of gossip to sustain them, which Ananthamurthy with his feats of storytelling provided in abundant measure. This issue of Seminar is an attempt to assess the man, to provide some sense of the world he created. How does one assess a life which permeates an entire culture, quietly providing the songlines of debate?
I am reminded of a wonderful friend of mine, an almost impish character, who was reading a tribute to a great writer. He read it quietly, and then read it again. I was intrigued by his silence and asked him what he thought of the piece. He said, ‘Droppings. Name droppings. Word droppings. There is a connection between bloated words and bloated egos. I wish one had talked about the man, what he felt, what he dreamt of, who he loved, what mistakes he made, what regrets he had – not this immaculate pastiche of politically correct phrases. If criticism becomes correct, it will be the death of conversation.’ He stopped: ‘I love an India where we build icons to iconoclasts.’ He smiled and then said: ‘The irony would appeal to URA. At least here irony, metonymy, paradox, every trope he loved was present. I remember a group of people celebrated his death with firecrackers. I can see him, part of the crowd, watching the whole scene with quizzical interest.’
In a way the man was crafted like a novel where every sentence was a nuance, every line a strand from memory. Memory was the commons from which his ideas emerged. Yet, he added to memory the art of conversation. He was a remarkable listener and he crafted friendship like his stories. He had a huge following but never considered it as a mass, a collections of fans. Each individual, housewife, critic, bureaucrat, school kid, taxi driver felt a personal link to him, a particular claim, a memory, a special moment of remembrance. He was a ganglion of all who knew him. Each story was concrete, personal and particular.
In that he was different from almost any intellectual I knew. For example, some are obsessed with work but they collect nuggets of information, not people. Others are admired for what
they write but one does not quite want to meet them. URA moved like a happy bee pollinating a community. He thrived on the little moments, morsels enjoyed in anonymity. He had an openness and trust which allowed people
to quarrel with him and yet he hugged them in welcome the next day. One could differ with him and yet had to love the man. There was something so endearing about him. He was a guru but had neither gurukul nor gharana. He loved the openness of café intellectuals which he grew on, the give and take of celebrating ideas. He thrived on the yeast of conversation and he realized politics without the art of difference is no longer politics.
He was a teacher, an exemplar. He could be firm. I remember at one Ninasam session, in Heggodu, my attention was wandering. I was tired after a long lecture, a bit irritated with the questions. He reprimanded me quietly. ‘Listen, learn and respond, you owe it to them.’ He was an immaculate listener. He could take any question, even a dull one and turn it into a little work of art to which one wanted to immediately respond. In a culture where intellectuals are content to score points, he connected them into a picture. Yet, he could stand alone in an intellectual fray, admitting that people were angry with him. He was passionate about his ideas and their demands. Often he would be indifferent to readers when experimenting with an idea. ‘Then I have to write myself out.’ He was supple about himself.
URA was born on 21 December 1932 in the kingdom of Mysore, lived in a forest and as a brahmin boy lived out the logic of pollution at its most intricate level. He lived in a world where everything was sacred. A forest in childhood is a sensorium of fears, sounds, smells, where each night brings its own trail of anxiety. Fear needs to be domesticated by summoning the Gods, by invoking prayer, and without these tremors of fear, no story can be born, no myth relived. A forest also gives a sense of the sacred, providing a train of taboos, of worlds that one should not touch. Violation of taboos brings the Gods down on you and the first fights of rationalism and its protests are acts of sacrilege, of piddling in defiance on temple stones. Oddly, even protest has its rituals in a brahminic world, where rituals mark all things. Between taboo, ritual and the sacred, a brahminic world creates its weave, implicating everyone mercilessly in it. Even critics and rebels are but different kinds of storytellers showing how deeply society has encoded them. These childhood years marked him as a sociologist of ritual, where even protest as drama enacts a variant of society.
Beyond ritual and its fascinations, the play of ideas was critical to URA. Maybe every act, every debate, is a re-enactment of the conversations in a college canteen, where an idea is always a commons, where each debate ploughs a domain till it becomes richer. A few exemplary teachers and a hunger for ideas and friendship can create an intellectual community. That richness of memory becomes the creation myth of every later conversation. Conversation becomes a compost heap which perpetually renews itself. The ascetic and the aesthetic combine here to create a style which is unforgettable. One recites the name of every writer and journalist as if one is savouring each creative act, each a puffball of memories, works, debates. Kuvempu. Govindaswamy, Ramanujan, Subbanna, Karnad, Chitre, Kasaravalli, Nagaraj and, as the years go on, a younger generation feasting on a past, proud of a language that has given them a world in common.
It was a world where swadeshi and swaraj combined unconsciously and effortlessly. Swadeshi was the local school teaching vernacular. Yet swadeshi was never parochial, never confined to the local. Locality was about rootedness, an embeddedness, of languages, soil and cuisine which smelt of local in all its variants, the sensuality of the everyday. Through translation, through interpretation, swadeshi became swaraj not only through the academic cycles of storytelling, but through interpretations, re-reading, where every story becomes a cosmos of reinterpretations. Such worlds revere the storyteller. URA was a trickster who could put Galileo and Gandhi, Milton and Tagore, Jatra, Yakshagana and Kabuki together. Retelling is important because stories have to be retold, to be renewed. Retelling is an act of trusteeship and the storyteller an indispensable trustee of society. It reminds one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, The Storyteller, where a tribe survives as long as their story is told again and again.
This issue then is a tribute to a storyteller, who was a public intellectual. It is an attempt to analyze his ideas, his life, his milieu, as tribute and as critique. It asks the following questions. What does the nature of language mean to a writer? What does it mean to be a revolutionary in a ritualistic world? How does one carry out a conversation of ideas which affects every citizen? How does one compost childhood into the imagination? What is translation? How does one make democracy more creative and the political more inventive? What is the role of memory and invention in our culture? What is the relation between politics and the novel? What does writing as creativity tell us about other arts? Can listening to music tell you about writing?
This is not a journal of techniques of a how to do it book. It is a quarrel, a set of conversations with an extraordinary man. One can see him in the mind’s eye consuming it like another story, responding like another Scheherazade with another ‘Once there was…’
Rice and ragi: remembering URA
THERE is a time and place for impersonal scholarship to assess the creative work of U. R. Ananthamurthy, and to make sense of what it has meant and is likely to mean to Indian literature in the future. There is also a time and place for personal acquaintances to reflect on their friendship, and to make sense of what it has meant to their own lives. The recentness of URA’s death and my long attachment to him prompt me now to reflection rather than assessment. And while I want to reminisce for the record – I know this is what URA would have appreciated – what I see emerging from these reminiscences are two larger, even defining features of his life and work around which I can organize my thoughts: his relationship with India’s language order and his relationship with the order of the world.
The face of (a very young) Girish Karnad was staring from the screen at the end of the film version of Samskara when I walked into a room at the University of Iowa in the spring of 1975, as a twenty-seven year-old professor just beginning my career, and met URA for the first time. I was coming to the university to teach Sanskrit but also to succeed him as instructor in Asian literary humanities. Something in that configuration of concerns – literature, Asia, and Sanskrit – and in fact in a particular sub-configuration of that configuration, was to lie at the core of our friendship for the next forty years. For it was a relationship that lived on and sustained itself through literature in general, Indian literature in particular, and the peculiar bond that exists between big and powerful languages like Sanskrit or English and smaller and more embattled languages like the one to which URA devoted himself heart and soul, Kannada.
I guess you could say that the single most consequential act in URA’s writerly life was the choice to take the side of the embattled – as he would do in all the rest of his life – and to use Kannada for his literary writing. Others in this issue of Seminar will no doubt have something to say about URA’s postgraduate work in Birmingham UK in the late 1950s: about the remarkable circle of friends and mentors who surrounded him there (Richard Hogarth, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Stuart Hall); the historic intellectual moment he participated in that saw the dawning of cultural studies; the dissertation he wrote on the British Marxist novelist Edward Upward (who, it is astonishing to learn, died only five years ago, at the age of 105); and URA’s immersion in English literature in general, for it was the field to which he would, academically, be affiliated through his active teaching career. What for me is most significant about this postgraduate experience, however, is the choice he made then to reject English in favour of Kannada.
Anyone who has ever read the utterly charming, seemingly artless English that URA wrote in his scholarly essays understands at once that the act of abandoning the language in his creative work was not a necessity but a choice. It was one that affiliated him with a deep history of choices of which he was fully aware, just as he was fully aware of the politics such a choice entailed. All these issues – political, historical, aesthetic, and existential – that were associated with the decision to use the particular literary language he did use marked as much as, or even more than anything else, URA’s identity as a writer and – to move from great things to small – marked the intellectual impact he exercised on one particular friend.
I saw these forces vividly at work when at my invitation (and with the support of a Fulbright fellowship) URA returned to Iowa City to spend the academic year 1986-1987. Soon after he arrived, we decided to sit down together and translate one of his first short stories, ‘Prakriti’.1 As we worked our way through the piece word by word – despite the fact that my Kannada then was rudimentary (as it has once again become) – I experienced at the most intimate level both the large structural relationship between Kannada and Sanskrit but also URA’s very careful modulation and balancing between the two codes. I witnessed the powerful affective hold Kannada held for him, and the joy with which he explained its nuances to an (almost) outsider. The translation itself was to have appeared in one or another collections, yet never did; it is seeing the light of day, finally, in this issue of Seminar.
‘Prakriti’ is, for me at least, what Sanskrit would call an anvartha nama, a word that perfectly embodies its referent, since the experience of translating it lingers as a foundational one in my memory and life. Not only would Kannada become a scholarly interest of mine from that point on, but a larger research project began to take shape in my mind, on what I would come to call the problem of cosmopolitan and vernacular in history. However vague at first, the project would come to obsess me for the next decade and a half, and it was one on which URA, in his own way as a contemporary writer grappling with the problem, would be an active interlocutor.
When I say URA ‘chose’ to write in Kannada, I want to make clear, if it is not already, that both the possibility of literary language choice and the obligation to choose truly exist for many contemporary postcolonial writers, especially Indian writers, in a way and with a degree of compulsion (and anxiety) that they do not for others, the so-called metropolitan writers. And in India, as elsewhere if less intensely, this choice is by no means postcolonial; instead, the literary world had long been structured by a complex ‘language order’ (a concept I borrow from Andrew Ollett). For two thousand years, being a writer in India had always entailed the necessity of choosing and, by that choice, affiliating oneself with one or another competing – and sometimes conflicting – aesthetic, social and political vision.
Ananthamurthy was fully aware of all this, since he was deeply interested in the deep past, if less expertly knowledgeable about it than he would have wished. (He could not help me with Old Kannada himself, but he had the foresight to direct me to the great scholar T. V. Venkatachala Sastry of Mysore.) Indeed, it was from discussions with him that my own long gestating ideas took on greater nuance and cultural-political urgency. I began to see that, as in so other many instances of deep cultural theory, classical India had a great deal to teach the rest of the world: it had actual categories for cultural phenomena that were common elsewhere but completely unnamed, and hence, unknown. In this case the terms are marga and desi, languages of the ‘Great Way’ and those ‘of Place’, which, for reasons I have tried elsewhere to clarify, I would eventually decide to translate as ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘vernacular’.
I began to see that these were not only literary-critical terms but broadly cultural, informing traditional understandings of diversity in everything from dance to music to food. And they were, or could arguably be held as, broadly political, since they were associated with varying forms of (respectively) transregional and regional power. According to the analysis of Indian culture-power I began to develop in the 1990s, Sanskrit ruled as the language of empire for a millennium or more starting around the beginning of the Common Era, and would eventually be replaced, some ten centuries later, by other, more circumscribed formations that I called vernacular polities, in part because they prioritized regional language for the expression of political power.
Of course, in many ways a vernacular-political language such as Kannada could itself take on a certain cosmopolitan character, both in its interaction with Sanskrit and in its domineering relationship with languages of smaller worlds such as Kodagu or Konkani or Havyaka (in which a movie version of the ‘Prakriti’ story has, somewhat ironically, just been produced), or indeed, URA’s own language, which was basically Tulu.2
This peculiar kind of synthesis that India found generally so easy to effect – in contrast to more assimilative formations, whether ancient empires such as Rome or modern nation-states such as England or France – offered a kind of template that URA readily transferred to contemporary politics. An example he was fond of citing was the election in December 1984, which saw the ‘marga’ candidate Rajiv Gandhi elected from the all-India Congress Party as prime minister of India, and the ‘desi’ candidate Ramakrishna Hegde from the locally-inflected Janata Party as Karnataka chief minister. He could similarly think of sociological categories in the same terms: thus, class was ‘marga’ whereas caste was ‘desi’.
With URA’s help, I began to see that Kannada itself was conspicuous in world literary history for its richly layered, long-term arbitration of these different valences, not uniquely so – given, in India, the somewhat later history of Telugu, among other examples, or, in Europe, the considerably later history of Italian, again among others – but conspicuously so. With the characteristically earthy wit of the Shimoga villager he was always proud to be, he gave expression to this categorical diversity through the metaphor of rice versus ragi, the ubiquitous white refined food of the urban elites (and high-caste ritual specialists) and the very local hearty millet of the rural poor. This was a conceit he long cherished: he mentioned it to me in conversation first around 1986; so far as I can tell it first appeared in print in an introductory essay to the photo album Karnataka: Impressions, 1989, and more recently in these pages in a 2010 interview with Chandan Gowda (it derives ultimately from the 17th century Kannada poet Kanakadasa).
The extension that he could have made but did not, or did not wish to, make was that rural people do not actually want to eat ragi, however wholesome they know it to be. They prefer to eat the white rice that will weaken them… and to learn the English that will weaken, or even kill, Kannada. Indeed, what pained URA as much as anything in the world was to observe the long arc of the nourishing vernacular tending toward decline under the power of white-rice English.
All these ideas – about the writer’s commitment to Kannada and about the great Kannada poets and thinkers past and present – manifested themselves not just in our purely intellectual exchanges but in the relationships that URA made possible for me. It is to him that I owe my friendship with the great Dalit poet Devanur Mahadeva and the inimitable Girish Karnad, my acquaintanceship with the playwright Chandrashekhar Kambar and the literary historian and critic Kirtinatha Kurtakoti, among countless others. Even my interactions with my dear colleague A.K. Ramanujan took on a special aura because of URA (Raman actually edited the draft translation of ‘Prakriti’ in 1989).
But foremost among all these new friends was D.R. Nagaraj, who before his tragic death in 1998 was about to accept a professorial appointment at the University of Chicago (I had thought of him as the successor – a man from the world of ragi rather than the world of rice – for Raman, who died in 1993). It was his support for DR over many years, his affection for and loyalty to him, his engagement with his ideas, his shared temperament, that embodies for me everything that was so wonderful about URA: passion for literature; genuine admiration for learning with real depth; profound connection with Kannada as both an old and new literary language; lifelong commitment to the battle against social inequality; and last but hardly least and hardly negligible, magnetic charm and joyful playfulness.
Ananthamurthy’s commitment to Kannada was inseparable from his love of Karnataka. A good deal of his prose writing was about the land and the people and the ways of life on that wonderful spot of earth, object of such remarkable emotional attachment from as early as the 9th century. ‘Between the Kaveri and the Godavari rivers’, so the great Kannada treatise on poetry and polity, ‘The Way of the King of Poets’ (Kavirajamarga), puts it ‘is that culture-land (nadu) in Kannada, a well known people-place (janapada), an illustrious, outstanding political realm within the circle of the earth.’
From an early date Kannadigas had known to situate this special place in the wider world. Entirely typical is a 12th century inscription from northwest Karnataka from a tiny Brahman settlement: ‘In Jambudvipa, best of all continents, lies Bharatavarsha, most exalted of regions… In it is found Belvala, native soil of the multitude of all tribes… In it lies the Nareyangal Twelve, and therein is found the celebrated agrahara named Ittagi.’ (In a way I cannot quite articulate, this telescoping in – bringing the big world into the little – seems to me different from and preferable to that of the telescoping out – projecting the little world into the big – found in say Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist: ‘Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe.’)
This peculiar orientation is a perfect geographical counterpart to the ‘cosmopolitan vernacularism’ of Kannada writers and thinkers, both ancient and modern, where the two great tendencies in culture and power could each find its proper place. And it is entirely evocative of URA’s own way of being: he lived his life and made his art in such a way that the whole world was meant to be contained in the language and themes of the ‘land of the black earth.’
I was fortunate to have been able to travel through much of the state with URA, typically on the high hard seat of an Ambassador on loan to him in connection with this or that administrative posting. I remember the glorious days we spent in Kodagu amidst the coffee fields, or in the western ghats en route to the wildlife preserve in Thekkady, where after several early risings we succeed in sighting not much more than some elephant turd and Lord Rama’s three-striped squirrel. But then, seeing animals was not really the point of the trip.
In the spring of 1987, URA asked me to sit and talk with him about an invitation he had just received from the then chief minister of Kerala to become vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, a new postgraduate institution in Kottayam. Or perhaps the invitation was mediated by Ramakrishna Hegde, the chief minister of Karnataka, for part of the issue in URA’s decision whether to accept or refuse was the worry of disappointing political associates in his home state. It was clear to me at the time, and even more to URA himself, that accepting such a position for so long – I think it was at least a two-year appointment – would seriously interrupt his literary career.
And indeed, most readers would probably agree that his output from the 1990s on did not reach the heights of commitment and passion and artistry of the earlier works. But URA’s decision to accept was based, aside from local political concerns, on another core aspect of his character: his commitment to social and economic justice, and to equal intellectual opportunity. To help build a new university in a progressive state to serve the needs of common people spoke too directly to many of his concerns to ignore. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by telling a few Kottayam stories.
When URA got to the Kerala university he needed someone to help with the cooking. An acquaintance of his, a political activist and member of the Irava community, had recently died, leaving his family destitute. URA immediately hired his late friend’s sixteen-year-old son as cook. It was inconsequential to him that the boy could hardly find his way around a kitchen (he once succeeded in turning magnificent fresh fish I had bought on a backwater boat ride into shoe leather). It was entirely typical of URA that he preferred to eat poorly for two years, as he wound up doing, rather than forego the chance to help a person in need.
I was not present during the drive in 1989 (one not started by URA but vigorously promoted by him) to make Kottayam the first city in India to achieve one-hundred per cent literacy; among other things, URA arranged for reading glasses for aged illiterates eager to be able, finally, to learn to read (the Silver Jubilee of this event was celebrated in Kottayam this past June 25).
Another visit of mine to Kottayam later in that same summer coincided with the tragic events of Tiananmen Square. I accompanied URA to a tense meeting of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in central Kerala (I forget now where; it might have been Alleppey). While the last Stalinists in the world were busy purging any member who denounced the state atrocity, URA stood up and gave an impassioned speech in defence of the slaughtered students, entirely secure in the conviction that he must speak regardless of the mood of the gathering.
URA ran his vice chancellorship of MGU in the same way, receiving on a daily basis streams of what seemed petitioners or even suppliants, whether from the staff, the students, or, most typically, a union representative, who came seeking URA’s intercession in this or that cause or with this or that person abusing their authority. At the same time the vice chancellor was encouraging the most intense discussions around freedom and dignity in the university’s School of Social Theory. There was no theory-practice contradiction in URA.
It had been much the same during his Fulbright year in Iowa City. URA had gathered around him a group of brilliant young Indian students, all of them at once artistically creative and politically radical, just like himself: Suketu Mehta, Kabir Mohanty and Sharmistha Mohanty, V. Geetha, the late Bala Kailasam, among others. His quest for social transformation was infectious. At the same time, he travelled widely in the US, most memorably to the deep South, where he talked to African-American youngsters about social change, non-violence, and the ties that bound him and them together. URA believed that honest men and women committed to real revolution must put their time and energy where their mouths are, and unlike most of us, he did so constantly.
Others in this issue of Seminar will, I hope, discuss more deeply than I am able to do URA’s actual political life in Karnataka, such as his relationship to the old Socialist Party and Janata Party of Karnataka, his unwavering resistance to the Emergency, or his lifelong admiration for the (largely if unjustly forgotten) political theorist and anticolonial revolutionary Ram Manohar Lohia, Ananthu’s admiration no doubt in part stemming from Lohia’s own sense of priority of the anthropological desi – caste – over the sociological marga – class.
Progressive politics was baked into URA’s character, and it is no surprise he preserved that spirit to the very end of his life, as his profound concern at the 2014 election testifies. His death is a source not only of deep sorrow to his friends but of worry to anyone who cares about the orders he cared about, the order of language and the order of the world, and understands, as URA understood so well, how deeply the two are connected.
1. I feel sure he told me it was his first, but the original appeared only in his second collection, Prashne, in 1963. URA apparently found unsatisfactory the translation by Sumatindra Nadig (in Sixty Years of Kannada Short Story, ed. L.S. Seshagiri Rao, Kannada Sahitya Parishad, 1978; he mentioned another, earlier and very bad version that cannot now be traced). Narayan Hegde, the translator of URA’s short stories, published a Hindi version in Ajkal in 1963. (I thank him for this bibliographical information.)
2. 2013; directed by Panchakshari, produced by Art Films, Bangalore.
MY appa was not an intimidating father. In my memory, he is ever present, immersed in the affairs of the world or in his writing, yet constantly with me, a large, warm and comforting presence who could change my entire perspective on an issue with just one word or an observation. My earliest memories, from the days spent in Birmingham, are of creating from rearranged sofas and chairs covered by bedspreads, darkened ‘tents’ where he would crawl in with me in between his thesis writing lying in wait for the tiger. We would both be very quiet and he would ask me to lie very still and keep a watch for the prowling beast in the vicinity. The game would go on for a while and after a successful capture (or hunt, for I was fascinated by guns and cowboys at the time) he’d go back to his thesis writing.
On other days it would be memory games, where he would make me listen with attention to a sequence of words, phrases and as I got better at recalling, an entire short poem. He would tell others about how I managed to listen to things and recall the entire piece at one go. I can’t remember now if this feat was as remarkable as he made it out to be, but I enjoyed seeing him say this to others beaming with pride, and did not feel like spoiling this.
Still too young for kindergarten, I would devise rituals at home to try and prevent him from going to the university. One of the rituals was that he would have to say goodbye several times while I hid behind the furniture and finally, as I let him go reluctantly, he would have to turn back once near the gate and wave me a goodbye as I watched him from the window above. I could not understand what this ‘thesis writing’ was all about. From watching him typing away with one finger on a typewriter, or making note cards, amidst the din of the Indian home my mother had put together, I’d sometimes declare to Martin Green, the English writer and critic who used to visit often, that I was busy ‘writing my thesis’.
We lived in a ‘poorer England’ and appa had to support the family with a meagre scholarship. Our small flat was made a home with furniture that was rented, and a TV set that was recovered from an abandoned pile of things by the roadside. Appa, who had an acumen for radio and TV repair, had fixed the broken TV painstakingly figuring out the problem with the connections of the valve and tubes device. The spool tape recorder would spew out, with the tone getting warmer as the valves of the device heated up, old Hindi songs, and the Beatles, who had filled the airwaves by then. He loved the Beatles and in later years I remember him often talk about how they created both new sounds and a new consciousness in the West.
I was nearly four when we moved back to Mysore, with my sister Anu, an addition that happened in England, and spoke only ‘British English’. Very few in Mysore could understand me, but all my relatives, I remember, marvelled at the ‘young Englishman’. The only friends I seemed to be making was with the girls who spoke to me in English and who went to the ‘best school in Mysore’ which, as someone had advised appa, was a convent run school. He had returned determined to re-establish his connections with the Kannada cultural and literary world, and it dismayed him that Kannada was yet to become my mother tongue. It was then that I joined a school in Saraswathipuram, a middle class neighbourhood. Soon after joining school I began to ask appa the meaning of some of the choicest expletives in Kannada. This had probably reassured him as he had a big smile on his face. A few fisticuffs later, bruised and crying, I had picked up Kannada from the local boys in the neighbourhood school. We lived in a house that was part of a row of houses opposite a large empty field where big ponds formed each time it rained and filled the night with the sounds of croaking frogs and chirping crickets.
I remember that almost for a year, on at least two Sundays every month, Shivaram Karanth, the distinguished Kannada writer and activist, would show up early in the morning, his big white ambassador parked somewhere in the field opposite, his driver Anand patiently waiting with a smile as I ran out and jumped into his car to spend a long hour or two chatting with him. As I ran out, Karanth would surprise me, posing a funny question, or sometimes just ‘meow’ like a cat! Appa, a young lecturer then at the Regional College in Mysore, regularly had diverse visitors at home, ranging from his English department colleagues, who were quite bohemian in their ways in an otherwise conservative Mysore, to the doting young students mostly from Kerala and Karnataka, who needed advice on their love affairs or petty quarrels.
Then there were the Dalit activists and even the rationalists, who saw in the writer of Samskara a torchbearer in their fight against the evils of caste and associated superstitious practices. Devanuru Mahadeva, a young man just out of his teens, was a regular visitor. I remember appa talk to his writer friends about the genius of Odalala, Devanuru’s novella that had just come out. I was quickly losing whatever ‘English touch’ I had acquired, although with some regret for this quality had given me much mileage in Mysore. As for appa, I could notice a conscious and deliberate move towards a more desiKannada culture, in the causes he espoused in support of Kannada, causing much discomfort in some of the more English-oriented department colleagues and other cosmopolitans of Mysore who otherwise admired him.
My school days were a heady mix of fantasies about the girls around in school and the neighbourhood and, at home, the animated conversations that I watched or listened to in between my cowboy or police-robber games that consisted mostly of running through the rooms of our little house in Saraswathipuram, with Prakash my best friend in the neighbourhood and his little sister and my own in tow. The conversationists, who visited and mostly sat in the grill windowed veranda, formed the backdrop. Their voices in the midst of a heated discussion rose and faded as we darted in and out of the veranda.
They were from diverse backgrounds – political activists that included both Lohiaites and communists, young Kannada writers and critics, budding theatre artists and, I remember as this had caused great excitement, a young and upcoming magician who had brought with him a entire box of sleight-of-hand tricks as a present for me. All of them came to share their experiences, often for advice about their work and sometimes because they continued to be mesmerized by a speech he might have given at a college, or bank employees association (I remember the magician was a bank employee about to quit his job to follow his true calling). Once, the ‘math wizard’, Shakuntala Devi, showed up at our doorstep, Samskara in hand, wanting him to autograph it while she narrated her life story!
It could have been that appa was somewhere fulfilling my appaiah’s (his father) desire to see him take up mathematics as a career choice, for he would readily offer to engage himself in our math homework. He had an uncanny ability for solving algebra problems, or proving geometry theorems. Anuradha didn’t seem to need much help at school, but I did, especially in math. We had a wonderful math teacher in school but he mostly spent the class hour talking about atheism and Russell. So, all the real problem solving was left to appa, who would first ask me for some basic information by way of brushing up and then sit down and neatly derive something or provide the proof of a difficult rider in geometry. Anu and I had a nickname for him when he professed his math or analytical abilities. We called him Bertek when he put on the hat of a mathematician or scientist. So we’d tease Bertek about his ‘scientific interests’ to pull him down, especially when he gloated about solving a difficult problem that had bothered us for long.
But growing up wasn’t all just to do with math and science. Appa had a passion for nonsense rhymes and poetry and encouraged us to make up long strings of interesting sounding words that made no sense. A photograph in an old magazine with two characters in a pool had caught my fancy making me christen them ‘fussy fuzzle fut and mooshi moot’. Appa and I delighted in looking at this photo from time to time, and each time these names would come into my head. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were our big time favourites and he used to read out different passages from these works to us. One way that appa and Anu would get back at me was by inventing new languages with some simple rules and conversing rapidly with each other. One such was sa-bhashe, where they’d prefix a sa to the normal Kannada sounds, reeling off sentences in this manner till I became really irritated at failing to decipher as quickly as they spoke by taking off the sa from the syllables.
The seventies saw appa arguing his way through Maoism and China with the leftist friends who came home. When I think back I can’t recall when these political ideas and discussion seeped into my head and got me interested in them, but I recall that I often talked to my classmates at school about some of the things I heard at home during appa’s conversations with these visitors. He educated both his brothers through their college and they stayed with us in turn. Anil, the younger one studying MBBS, had a large circle of Marxist friends who were regular visitors. One of Anil’s classmates, Lakshminarayan, kept us abreast with the latest events in China. The Cultural Revolution was a topic of much discussion. It all seemed quite exciting. What I picked up from the animated discussions, jokes and loud banter, was a liberal sprinkling of terms like ‘petite bourgeois’, ‘adventurist’, ‘lumpen proletariat’, ‘comprador capitalist’ and so on. Appa’s disillusionment with China’s experiments seemed evident from his later remarks about the irony behind Mao’s Long March that eventually led the Chinese to Coca Cola! This disillusionment was to slip further into a deep sense of anguish after the Tiananmen Square incident he happened to witness on a visit to China.
The mid-seventies had a very special effect on me and appa. I had found many new interests by then, many of them having their origin in a bag of musical goodies consisting of cassettes and vinyl records that appa’s hippie and campus radical friends had helped select for him during his first long stay abroad as a visiting writer and fellow at the well known Iowa Writers’ Programme in the US. These records and music, ranging from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to the seventies bands such as The Band, Bob Dylan, and to classical music (Rachmaninoff, Dvorak), transformed into a continuous musical extravaganza in our little study. To this was added M.D. Ramanathan’s deep tonality of Carnatic renditions and a record of Kumar Gandharva gifted by A.K. Ramanujan on one of his annual visits from Chicago (his visits were received by the whole family with great rejoice). The Allahabad High Courts’ indictment of Indira Gandhi was out and her arrest seemed to appa as if they were ‘hanging her for a parking offence’, although her authoritarian politics had deeply disturbed him.
The news of the Emergency came amidst his activity with other socialists and student political leaders in the university. Although it was believed that Karnataka’s chief minister at the time, Devaraj Urs, was being somewhat kinder to the opposition, many politicians in Karnataka, as elsewhere, went behind bars under the infamous MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act). Many of them were appa’s friends. He threw himself into many underground type of activities. Much of the discussion with sometimes mysterious looking visitors to the house, amidst amma’s worry that appa was entangling himself in ‘quite unnecessary things’, would be in hushed tones, while the music continuously played in the background in our little study. As a thirteen year old, my own interest in politics and the events in Karnataka were kindled by these goings on.
An invitation to appa around that time from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla was an opportunity to take the entire family on our first big tour to the North. In Delhi, we stayed – both en route to Shimla and on the way back – with appa’s close friend, the Hindi poet Kamlesh. I remember the days spent in his house vividly. Kamlesh appeared preoccupied with many other matters amidst the generous hospitality and late evening dinner parties he arranged in honour of his good friend. After all the guests had left he would talk to appa about someone’s visits or about some of the socialist friends who had been arrested. On some nights, on our way back from the local sight seeing tours, he could be seen near the house on the road waiting for ‘someone’.
One afternoon a visitor, who looked like a sadhu, arrived at Kamlesh’s house. He asked appa if he recognized him and upon drawing a blank remarked, ‘Good that you don’t recognize me’. I ran inside excitedly and told amma that I recognized George Fernandes even in disguise while appa had not! After he left, I realized that the Mark Twain book I was reading on that trip had vanished! George Fernandes had to spend many long days in rooms in churches or places where quiet supporters of his fight against the Emergency accommodated him, and appa tried to console me that my book was being put to some good reading. We didn’t realize till much later, when Kamlesh, along with C.G.K. Reddy, George Fernandes and others was charged with conspiring to disrupt the peace through violence (what became known as the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy), that all the gelatin sticks had been stocked in the house we had stayed in.
In Mysore, appa continued to be actively involved with a mix of people, all arraigned against the Emergency – leftists, Jana Sanghis and also RSS activists, then in hiding or with pseudonyms. The RSS network was responsible for passing on messages across the country and appa was genuinely impressed by the discipline and commitment they had shown in this enterprise.
We used to have a ‘Saliyan’, a dark complexioned person, visit our home at all odd hours. He was the only visitor who would also talk to me in between his conversations with appa. Soon after the Emergency was lifted and the RSS shakhas started to be held in the open, Saliyan gently suggested that I visit one of their shakhas. I went one day and stood on the side watching. I was quite drawn to the games they played and the exercise and drills. So I went and asked appa if I could join. He said he would have no problem but what about my friend Alamdaar who used to come home to play with me every evening? ‘Could he join as well?’ I asked Saliyan. He only said that Alamdaar may not join even if I asked him to come along. I never went to the shakha nor did Saliyan try persuading me again.
Appa was not an authoritarian at home. He never forced me or Anu to pursue any particular career. He lived a life steeped in a universe of ideas, ideas that often complemented each other, or came into conflict. Being a teacher was for him a way to pursue these ideas. We were brought up in a milieu wherein worldly pursuits were looked down upon and lucrative career choices regarded with disdain. One lived a worthwhile life only through living a life of the mind! So my decision to pursue science was welcomed, for appa saw the life of an academic and teacher as worthwhile. When Anu, who was studying medicine, moved away from her Carnatic music practice, he was saddened that she was giving up the pursuit of a great art form.
Appa continuously fought the Brahminism that he saw around him and opposed other kinds of casteism that he encountered in others. Although it was love that drew him to my mother when they married, the fact that she was Christian, I can’t help feeling, had a strong role to play in both his rejection of his own encumbrances attached to his upbringing as a Brahmin as well as his attraction later on to asserting his caste identity at a personal level through rituals that he started to observe. In the habits of our quotidian life, wherein mother did not practice her religion actively, nor went to church, nor tried to steer her children towards the Christian faith, but left out all religious ritual and served non-vegetarian food on the table, we found him, much more in his later years, asserting his vegetarian Brahmin identity by refusing to eat the non-vegetarian food served.
Mother’s family is Protestant Kannada Christian, and my grandparents from her side were devout church goers. My thaata (grandfather), a man of great self-contentment sat quietly, often deeply engrossed in painting and sketching wildlife. He would be found sometimes upon visits to our Mysore home, notebook and pen in hand, translating the Bible into Kannada. My grandparents’ view of their Brahmin son-in-law, initially with a little trepidation about the possible eroding of Christian values in our household, later transformed into adulation and pride as they watched his growing fame in the Kannada literary and political worlds. His long discourses about aspects of the Bible and gentle admonishments to other younger members of my mother’s family about not studying the Bible with enough care, helped matters further in earning him the favourite son-in-law spot.
My first big move away from the comfort zone of my home and the warmth and security of my Mysorean existence in moving to Kanpur was the point in time when I felt ‘grown up’. Appa continued to be a large presence in my life even then in advising me on all kinds of matters related to love – I had taken quite seriously a college love affair that then seemed to be the cause of my reluctance to study in a place other than Mysore – growing up away from home, and the pursuit of knowledge. Appa, upon seeing me in a state of agony about this affair, quietly went one day to talk to the girl’s parents and her brothers. He returned grim faced and looked rather upset at being lectured about life and decisions to be made by her still wet-behind-the-ears brothers. He gently revealed this to me, and I could see he didn’t think much of them or their advice! By his tone, I could make out that he was saying that he had tried, but that I was free to follow my heart. I did move out of Mysore and also away from the affairs of the heart. He continued being this presence even as I left to study in the US, and in bringing close to me many friends who are writers and artists and who I met because of him, while studying there. Appa became guru to many of them.
I was thirty when I returned to Bangalore, with much travel and years behind, but none the wiser from these experiences, when I re-encountered appa. He had grown enormously in stature. Our exchanges as adults marked a different phase in my life, but that narrative I will save for another time.
IN the flat, snow covered plains of the American Midwest, U.R. Ananthamurthy came to us – a small group of Indian students – bearing fragments of our own inheritance. With his singular vision and energy, he helped us to begin to see some of the diverse things that had made us. It was a transformation for us – students of writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, students of filmmaking and the sciences. He brought out magical books from his bag. TheArdhakathanika, the first ever autobiography written in India, in the seventeenth century, the just written The Intimate Enemy by Ashis Nandy, and Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. The force of that encounter over many months would leave its mark on all our lives. As would the paradox it contained, the fact that an encounter such as this was perhaps more powerful in that far away soil of Iowa.
The most searing thing about Ananthamurthy’s novels and stories is their activeness. The best of them do not reflect people and transformations, nor recreate or mirror them. What they do is face and confront. They do not recollect or recount, the tale unfolds as an intensely alive presence. Ananthamurthy was no doubt a public intellectual, a thinker, but it was his writing that I believe formed the core from which everything else emerged. It is in his fiction that he explored his ideas and often found his own vision. ‘(In Bharathipura) I give full scope to my ideological position. But the novel questions it, reflects on it, interrogates it, and turns the other way. That should happen in the process of writing. And I magically get it sometimes.’
One of the things at the heart of his gift as a writer was his ability to locate and understand ambiguity, as something not merely to be lived with, but to live by, especially in the context of India. In a long short story, ‘Clip Joint’, the narrator is in England for an extended period of time as a student. He has a close friendship with Stewart, an Englishman. He says to himself, ‘...the intensity of a life that grows in the stench of mud and urine – an intensity that precedes all mysticism. ...But here in this clean and well-ordered land of Stewart’s, only genteel humanists but no mystics are born.’
Ananthamurthy is best known for his first book, Samskara. This is clearly a more allegorical work. Where Samskara has dichotomies, Bharathipura has dilemmas; where Samskara has a decaying corpse, Bharathipura has death and dead lives. Very rarely does a novel have a narrator who acts with conviction, and is profoundly uncertain at the same time, as Jagannath is in Bharathipura. The moment when Jagannath urges the Dalits to touch thesaligrama is perhaps one of the most moving passages in Indian literature.
‘All that he wanted to say stuck in his throat: "This is primary matter, touch it; I hold my life in my hand as I offer this to you, touch it; touch the deepest part of my innermost being; this is the propitious moment of evening worship, touch it. In vain is the eternal flame burning there in the puja room. The people standing behind me are pulling me towards them, reminding me of countless obligations. What are you waiting for? What am I offering to you? This is the way it is: only because I offer this to you as a mere stone, it’s becoming the saligrama. If you touch what I offer you, it’ll become a mere stone to all of them. My anguish is becoming the saligrama; because I offer it to you and because you touch it and because they see you touching it, let the stone become the saligrama and let the saligrama become a stone, even as the evening deepens. Pilla, you’re not scared of the wild hog and even the tiger. Come on, touch it. After this, you’ll have just one more step to take, enter the temple. Then, centuries of belief will be turned upside down. Now, come on, touch this. Touch it now. See how easy it is. Touch it".’
A gesture can hardly be more ambiguous than it is here, a devastating ambiguity which holds both hope and hopelessness. Jagannath’s consciousness oscillates between the two. This is done in and through language, with a writer’s gift. He knows to say this in one long paragraph, building it up sentence upon sentence that communicates the intensity of Jagannath’s desire for change, sentences long and sinuous, broken sometimes by the deepest questions, and the repetition of ‘touch it’ – all this creates the entire world of caste and tradition and the centuries that stand behind it, in one moment, together. So Ananthamurthy’s craft serves his gaze and produces an emotion and insight that only literature allows.
Things are as active and alive in the masterful short story, ‘Suryana Kudure’ (The Stallion of the Sun). Here the encounter is between a village man, more or less a village idiot and an educated man of the village who studied abroad and has returned to live in a city. Here, the dialogue continues between the old and the new, tradition and modernity, belief and doubt. At the end of the story, as in so much of Ananthamurthy’s work, the ambiguity remains unresolved, that being the story’s deepest truth, one that we must live by. The story leaves behind a strong disturbance in the mind, a desire to choose between the two ways of being, and the inability to do so, because an empathy develops for both. However much we travel, upon our return there will be another way of living that confronts us with its own certainties, making ours waver.
Octavio Paz, in his In Light of India, says: ‘Hindu civilization is the theatre of a dialogue between One and Zero, being and emptiness, Yes and No… The fast negates the feast, the silence of the mystic negates the words of the poet and the philosopher.’ This was the arena in which Ananthamurthy’s writing existed. Where Paz, as an outsider, sharply saw the opposites, Ananthamurthy went much further to the place where yes could become no, the saligram and the stone constantly exchanging places.
I remember a large photograph of Ramakrishna with his eyes closed, turning in a kind of trance, in Ananthamurthy’s study in Bangalore. In the same study was another photograph, Tagore and Gandhi together in Santiniketan.
He spoke often of the three hungers of the soul (after Simone Weil) that animated the previous century in our country – the hunger for modernity, equality, and spirituality. All over the country writers like him were inspired by these urges, he said. ‘But equality as hunger of the soul is not easily satiated unless it gets coupled, as it does in some great sages of all times – with the other hunger, the spiritual hunger. Both these hungers have their origin in the feeling that all forms of life are sacred and our routine quotidian existence in the temporal world is boring unless it glows with a transcendental meaning.’
Possibly, his fiction could have pushed further in this direction. But the realist novel that he chose as a form would always privilege the human drama, and push everything else to the background. If all living beings and things were indeed sacred then literature would need a form where the human and the non-human had a certain equality. It is surprising that literature in our context has not taken on and made greater use of the overwhelming tradition that we are still privileged to have – of myth, legend, magic, epic and so much that is outside the framework of the rational. He once told me that Marquez would remain limited because beyond a point ‘you cannot exceed excess’. There may well be a grain of truth in that, but I felt he ignored the fact that the same could be said of the realist novel which has lost its energy over time. It can as easily be said that too much reality ultimately will be unable to express the very essence of that reality. I think he possessed the gift of creating a work which was not reducible to any kind of sociology or politics, but which included both and much else besides. Perhaps the man of action and the man of reflection were competing with each other in his work.
One issue he never changed his mind about was Indian writing in English. Our arguments about this continued over the years. He felt that Indian writing in English could never be ‘authentic’, that English did not have a ‘backyard’ as the Indian languages did, that it could never manifest our most intimate feelings. These views have drawn much criticism over the years. As part of a generation and perhaps a class produced by English education, I could not agree. We are in some sense made by history, and how are we to change our situation? Ananthamurthy used to laugh and call us – people like his son Sharath and myself – ‘the petrol generation’, products of movement, with spouses from other communities.
Over the years I have thought more about his views on this. Possibly because I am aware of the radiance of his mind that I know his words did not emanate from prejudice but from a deeper part of himself. Today, I do see that Indian writing in English, especially fiction, lacks a certain depth, and definitely a certain rooted-ness, unable to penetrate our diversities and our paradoxes. It is difficult, I feel now, to write in a language one barely hears on the street or in one’s daily interactions. There is no access to the different registers a language always has. As a result, the writing in Indian English can seem postured, its rhythms unmusical, its attitude formal. The only way that English can be used maybe in a deeply poetic mode where one speaks not so much to others but almost to one’s own soul.
One of the inheritances Ananthamurthy has left behind for me is living with the ambiguity that he was such a master at locating. As I continue to be a writer in English, I live with the questions he raised, with a kind of acceptance and interrogation of my own ambiguous situation. Ananthamurthy was a rare mind, and I continue to wonder whether such a mind could have been produced without rooted-ness in a soil and a community together with a going away to give it perspective. I will mourn his passing, even as I celebrate the luminosity of his vision.
* Sharmistha Mohanty is a fiction writer. She first met Ananthamurthy while studying at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and he remained a teacher and a friend for thirty years. Mohanty is the author of three works of fiction, Book One, New Life, and Five Movements in Praise.
WHEN relatives leave after a short visit, it is customary for them to give some money to the children of the house. To immediately hand it over to ammais also customary. Once, my aunt, who was returning to Mumbai after spending a few days with us, gave me ten rupees. ‘Buy something,’ she said. Had this episode transpired at home, I would have had to hand over the money to amma. I had gone to drop her off, and just before the bus moved out of the stand, she had, in a hurry, stretched her hand out of the window and thrust that folded note into my palm. I went straight to a bookshop without the faintest idea of what book to buy.
As I stood there browsing through the glass shelf, I saw Bharathipura, its green title page covered with half sentences. The words left me shaken. Till then I had neither come across such language nor such thoughts. I was mesmerized. I have not yet forgotten the lines that I read that day at the shop: ‘…because of Manjunatha our lifestyle has stagnated. We are rotting. Once we destroy Manjunatha we’ll have to become responsible for our lives… What’s important right now is to prepare the Holeyaru for it. We’ll have to make them take their first step in history. Their first step across the threshold of the temple may change the reality of centuries...’ I handed over my ten rupees, bought the book and went straight home, not getting up till I had finished it. I was 15 years old at the time.
The kind of disturbance that Bharatipura created in me cannot be easily described. The way language had been deployed was itself new to me. I myself went through the turmoil of the protagonist.
After Bharatipura, I turned towards a different kind of reading. This was a major turn in my life. The magic of Ananthamurthy’s writings came from the fact that he could articulate complex issues with great clarity and connect them to everyday experiences. Using this magic, he reached every nook and corner of the reader’s mind to transform an idea into an experience. I feel that it was this talent of Ananthamurthy that angered fundamentalists. Ananthamurthy’s writings and the metaphors he used obviously disturbed them deeply. The fundamentalist brigade must have been astounded by the lucidity of his thoughts; I clearly recall the restlessness I went through after reading Bharatipura.
Two years after I read Bharatipura, I got a chance to meet URA. At the time I was studying in a small town called Ankola. I was thrilled by the fact that a major writer like Ananthamurthy was willing to come for the annual day of the Shetageri village high school. The famous critic G.H. Nayak was responsible for bringing Ananthamurthy, and when I learnt that Nayak was in Ankola, I went looking for him. Though I was a complete stranger, Nayak spoke affectionately. He told me that Ananthamurthy was arriving by the Bangalore bus the following morning and invited me to join them for breakfast at his house.
I had been asked to come at 7 am, but I was so restless that I reached the bus stand much earlier. I had, since Bharathipura, read all of Ananthmurthy’s books twice over. Meanwhile, my very first short story was awarded a prize. Therefore, I entertained few doubts about my importance as a writer! Indulging myself in such thoughts, I waited eagerly to see Ananthamurthy. There was only one bus that came from Bangalore. It had yet to arrive. G.H. Nayak and the principal of the Shetgeri High School were already there. We stood under a tree, chatting as we waited for the bus.
That day the bus came late, around 8 am. I spotted him sitting by the window, wearing a gray and yellow sweater. Nayak went ahead and received him. And I was right behind. Taking off his sweater, the first words he uttered are still etched in my mind. ‘There was a huge downpour in Bangalore. It was very difficult to find an auto to reach the bus stand.’ Nayak introduced me to him. At around 9 am, I went to their house for breakfast. I sat intently listening to their conversation. But in a few minutes, I was disappointed. Ananthamurthy spoke about everything in the world except literature. Farmer’s revolutions, the schools and colleges that had been set up by Dinakar Desai, social revolution and much else – he seemed more concerned about contemporary politics.
Now, as a result of the many years of my close relationship with him, this aspect of his doesn’t surprise me. It was inherent to his nature. Till his illness made it difficult for him to travel, he loved going to schools and colleges in small towns. He was extremely interested in what youngster’s wrote. Till his last days he never lost the enthusiasm to read new writing and would contact the authors. He wrote letters, and told everyone about it. Ananthamurthy could see the strengths and limitations in a piece of writing and was honest in offering his criticism – this was valued by new writers on the block.
In the days when I didn’t know him all that well, he had written a letter to me after reading one of my stories; it remains a cherished moment, and this is true of many Kannada writers. He would create an informal atmosphere making it possible for anyone to approach him, to hand over their manuscripts and ask him for an opinion. This kind of an interactive environment, especially for younger writers, seems now a distant memory. If someone were to put down some features of the Ananthamurthy era, this certainly would be an important one.
Since he was deeply interested in the world around him, no one that he came in contact with was allowed to slip away. It could have been the carpenter, the farm labourer Ramaiah, a computer engineer, or even the big and famous – he would talk to them with great interest, without being judgmental. It was this interest that made him such an active participant at the three-day science seminar at Heggodu. He raised key ethical questions, which were seriously discussed at the gathering.
Talking about questions, I remember that he never treated even the most ordinary question with disinterest. He genuinely believed that it was inner provocation that prompted a person to ask a question and so helped them to articulate it with greater clarity – a lesson in lucidity of thought, that also gave the person asking the question a boost in self-confidence. But, if the question was to merely test his integrity, he became immensely angry.
To share and to build together was an integral part of his personality and thought process. People came to meet him all through the day; he never rejected anyone. His thoughts, his writing plans, political responses were discussed with several friends even before they came to occupy public space. Irrespective of a person’s age and background, he would engage in a meaningful conversation with them and, most importantly, take their feedback seriously. If at all he could foresee a reader response and its repercussions, this was probably the reason. I feel his interactions with people of diverse backgrounds influenced the structure of his narratives, the manner in which his thoughts developed, and his ability to yoke together dissimilar elements.
His participation with the larger community had a bearing on his writing process. Everything was kept ready somewhere, and it was as if he was merely putting them on paper – he wrote his essays in one sitting. Of course, he made minor corrections here and there, but there wasn’t much of a difference between the first and final draft. Because of this ability, he could dictate when unable to spend long hours before the computer. Another Kannada writer who had this ability was Shivaram Karanth. Such an exercise is impossible unless one has total clarity of thought.
This was true of his speeches too. I never saw him make elaborate notes for any of his lectures. His talks, like his writing, were also an outcome of his imaginative fabric. The immediacy in his speeches came from here, I suppose. During the proceedings, he would put down a few words on the back of an envelope, or make some random jottings on the last page of a notepad – this was his preparation. He would start talking and thoughts would fall in place. I feel he loved to make speeches because of the creative pleasure he derived from the process, possibly also the reason why they were so tentative and charming. He spoke with a sense of wonderment as these creative impulses worked within him, and he had the ability to transfer it to his audience as well. ‘It occurred to me at that moment, just as I was speaking,’ was something I have heard him say so many times.
I watched him closely when he was translating Tao The Ching. For nearly a month and a half in Mysore, he worked for 10-12 hours a day. Night and day he would think of only this, making a minimum of four versions for each poem. It was not merely a translation, it was an excuse for a search within. If you read his Foreword to Tao The Ching, the point I am making will become clear. He could also create the solitude required for his writing wherever he was. It didn’t need a specific place or time. Once having started, the writing would flow continuously, the buzzing world around him proved no impediment. That is how, even when he was travelling continuously and actively engaged in public life, he could immerse himself in writing as well.
His views on contemporary politics, however, left me nervous, almost as if I did not want to believe that it could happen. I had a reason to feel so. In 1996, Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda were both part of the Janata Dal during the assembly elections in Karnataka. On the day of counting Ananthamurthy was staying with us. At seven in the morning, Deve Gowda came to our house with a friend, who now occupies a key position in the Congress. Deve Gowda’s confidence and political experience was so sound that he could accurately predict the number of seats a party would win. When the results were declared, there was a difference of a mere three seats.
Despite it being counting day, there was a reason for Deve Gowda to spend those three hours at our house. He wanted Ananthamurthy to convince Hegde not to come in the way of his becoming the chief minister. I have a hunch that he left only after extracting a promise from Ananthamurthy. After he left, Ananthamurthy wrote a letter to Hegde. In it, he discussed the entire political scenario of the country and also the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. No party may win a majority, regional parties may become major players and would possibly come to power at the Centre, his letter predicted. And in such a scenario, he advised Hegde to move to national politics and let Deve Gowda take on the responsibility of the state. At that point this seemed impossible. I don’t know what Hegde took into account, what kinds of alliances took place, but Deve Gowda did become the chief minister. The rest is history and every-one knows how Deve Gowda expelled Hegde from the party! In retrospect, this letter appears like a prophecy to me. Hence, the intensity of his emotions and views on contemporary politics and Narendra Modi made me nervous.
Our last conversation was when he was in hospital. His book Hindutva and Hind Swaraj was ready for publishing. It was a book born from deep thought. He had revised it several times. The power of its language, the fiction-like narrative, and the progression of ideas that seem like incidents from a novel, will leave a lasting impact on the reader’s consciousness. That day, in the hospital, he spoke about the thoughts of Richard Rorty. ‘It could be history or sociology; if there is no faith that man can change, then all the work that’s happening in these fields is useless,’ he said. A little later he spoke about Shivaram Karanth, and recalling my comment, added, ‘It is time for us to reread Karanth again.’ Both these responses were typical of his nature.
Like everyone else who came into contact with him, I too was mesmerized by his persona, and experienced great happiness in his company. As a writer it was also inevitable that I would seek to break free from that influence. All these thoughts are a recollection of those moments of pleasure and anguish.
In these 25 years since I have been a part of his family and closely interacted with him in those thousands of meetings, I never returned empty-handed. He always had something new to share. There was always some new idea, new thought or a new book to talk about. This was true till the last meeting. It is indeed rare that someone who you are close to remains constantly new, even after all these years.
* Translated from Kannada by Deepa Ganesh.
Transcending imaginary divisions
THE first time I saw and heard Ananthamurthy was on a vacation home to Bangalore from Boston where I was pursuing a PhD in Physics at the time. In the long years away from home, I had begun to dabble with writing in Kannada as a way of keeping alive a meaningful connection with my mother tongue, and to catch up on Kannada literature that I had not paid much attention to when I lived in Bangalore. This engagement with writing in Kannada had become quite a serious preoccupation in those days, and all things literary took priority over other engagements during the visit.
When M.S. Murthy, an artist in Bangalore who I had recently met, told me of a public discussion at Ravindra Kalakshetra with Ananthamurthy who was visiting town (he was vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala in those days), I eagerly tagged along. I don’t recall much of what was actually said, but do remember that it was an extended dialogue, with Ananthamurthy engaging his interlocutors with obvious relish and earnestness. It was an appealing vignette of an engagement that I was an outsider to, but for quite some time it would remain an isolated cultural experience, given my intellectual and geographic distance.
It was a pleasant coincidence that drew me back into contact with Ananthamurthy after returning to India. Owing to a shared profession and common friends, I met Sharath, his son, and we got to know each other well. Soon thereafter, there were frequent occasions for me to meet Ananthamurthy, and to have conversations that covered a vast cultural universe, which became, over time, a beacon for how I view myself, my work, society and culture.
What struck me the most about Ananthamurthy was his serious and incessant engagement with ideas and the world around him. This was a constant, enduring meditation of a man who never ceased to strive to comprehend, to synthesize, and to formulate a position on all that came his way, and was ever eager to share, to question, and be questioned. The process itself, rather than any purpose that lay beyond, was the ultimate, unremitting yajna, which was at the same time effortless as a natural part of his being, but with a fierceness of focus that could easily tire the less energetic ones around him.
The broad canvass of Ananthamurthy’s contemplations were his deep concerns about the directions of modern civilization, the fate of dominated cultures, ways of living and knowing, and what notions of development held in store for them. Many concerns revolved around globalization, cultural and economic, and its relation to civilizational trends.
A particular strand of his concerns revolved around the role of science in determining the nature of contemporary society. As a practicing scientist, I often found myself being a sounding board, and sometimes a punching bag, to his engagement with this theme. Ananthamurthy’s principal concerns revolved around what may be called the epistemic hegemony of science, the implications of scientific knowledge, past and present, on human affairs, and the nature of the public participation of scientists in these matters.
A common experience when I visited him at home would be for him to tell me about the latest matter that he was engaged in a public discussion about. At some point during this discussion, he would interject a comment – ‘and no scientist is talking about this’. He felt that scientists should actively participate in public discussion on matters of societal importance, and was generally disappointed at the level of such participation. This point is an interesting one to ponder over. Ananthamurthy, by virtue of a tradition in the Kannada literary world, and his own personality, took it upon himself to be a conscience of society, and a public voice of dissent. Many scientists who may well share these views either do not see themselves as obligated to speak out, or feel that they do not have a forum to speak. Indeed, during one such discussion about science where Ananthamurthy appeared to imply that scientists have significant influence over public policy, Roddam Narasimha, a prominent scientist with significant public involvement about the use of science and technology, remarked wryly that Ananthamurthy had much more influence over public policy given the visibility of his views than most scientists.
The setting was a workshop on the ideas of science held at Ninasam, Heggodu, a theatre institute, and venue of an annual workshop on culture that Ananthamurthy was director of till last year. In the same discussion, Ananthamurthy insisted that given the prominence of science as a knowledge system and its role in the economy, there was no room for scientists to maintain a position of innocence and neutrality. One response, articulated by Roddam Narasimha, is that expecting scientists to bear responsibility for societal problems that science may have a bearing on is just as misplaced as the presumption that science will have answers to all questions of social and human concern. Whether these expectations are to be viewed as applying to individuals, or the community, and whatever the origins of the present state of affairs, the nature of the involvement of active scientists in public discourse on matters of broad social concern that involve science in some form (and those that do not necessarily involve science in any direct way) deserves introspection.
A deeper set of misgivings Ananthamurthy had about the role of science revolved around concerns about the dangers to a democratic world view concerning cultures and knowledge systems under attack from the forces of market oriented globalization, and a certain perspective on what development entailed. Science as an instrument of bestowing legitimacy or otherwise to knowledge systems or social programmes bothered him and, in spirit, his misgivings echoed those of Gandhi. He was critical of the tendency to seek justification about other ways of knowing through science, expressed a stand against the notion of development, and was fond of describing himself as a Luddite.
It was a mixed bag. Just as Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization resonates with many who continue to hold deep convictions about a scientific approach to the acquisition and employment of knowledge about the world, Ananthamurthy’s views on science too were not, to me, acceptable in their totality. The concerns from which these views arose were beyond dispute. They were motivated by a deep desire for social justice, freedom of thought and ways of knowing, and opposition to all forms of oppression. Many of his portrayals of the consequences of a technocratic civilization were well placed. The ambiguity and the difficulties resided in how one might embed what was valuable in a scientific world view in a social and cultural matrix that was just and nourishing. The issues involved are complex, and at the same time all-important for the future of human civilization, and Ananthamurthy, characteristically and rightly, was vocal in drawing attention to them, albeit as a dissenter.
As a writer, and storyteller, it was perhaps natural that Ananthamurthy had reservations about scientific inquiry and conclusions serving as an oracle for all matters that pertain to human experience, and few would disagree. But on the other hand, his views that advocated a place for traditional knowledge, grown organically, based on accumulated experience, apparently to the exclusion of scientific investigation, did not seem consistent with a commonly held view of science as organized common sense. These views also seemed to assume a certain completeness and adequacy to such traditional knowledge and traditional ways of life, which are questionable.
More problematic for me were his sentiments against the use of scientific knowledge and technology for the betterment of human welfare. I recall asking him what choice he would have made, in the face of widespread starvation, regarding the improvisations of the green revolution. He did not respond, perhaps because he saw the point of it, but this was not a satisfactory choice. He spoke approvingly about F.R. Leavis’s position against the well knownTwo Cultures thesis of C.P. Snow (who placed his hopes for meeting mankind’s needs on scientists who had ‘the future in their bones’, and who pleaded for better communication between the two cultures of natural sciences and the humanities), and I suspect, would have taken issue with Nehru’s assertion that ‘the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.’
But the public positions may have concealed what was privately an enthusiastic appreciation of the ideas of science and even the potential of technology as a liberating force. Ananthamurthy was fascinated by scientific ideas as he was by much else, and was equally interested in technology. One of his many nicknames from his children was in jest of his fascination of gadgetry, and he had a detailed appreciation of medical facts that concerned him. One of the stories he was fond of narrating was about Gandhi’s fascination for the Singer sewing machine, which he saw as a liberating device, freeing women of the tedium of sewing by hand. But it was technology a la mesure de l’homme, technology that was tailored to fit and satisfy human needs that was interesting, and not the monstrosities of industrial society run amuck. With the emergence of concerns about global climate, the environment and sustainable technology as overarching existential preoccupations today, even as many societies, including Indian society, rush headlong towards the dream of a consumerist paradise, such a vision of a humanized technological future is no longer esoteric and utopian, although it is as yet dim and at a distance.
The last conversation I had with Ananthamurthy was a few days before he passed away. On that day, in spite of the serious ups and downs in his condition in the days before, he was quite alert and lucid. Earlier that day, I had been reading news of a mathematician of Indian descent working in Princeton, Manjul Bhargava, receiving the Fields Medal in mathematics. Apparently, Ananthamurhty had also heard about it. At the mention of Manjul Bhargava in our conversation, he asked, with an eagerness in his voice so characteristic of him, ‘Can you tell me what he has done?’ I had to confess that I did not know enough to explain, but said I would learn about it well enough to explain it to him and promised do so soon. Sadly, that occasion was never to be.
So much has been written and said about Ananthamurthy’s outstanding qualities, especially since his passing away, that it is hard to say anything that has not already been said elsewhere. Nevertheless, I must record my own list of qualities that I found to be deeply appealing, in addition to what I have already described above, and aspects in which he was a role model par excellence.
He loved life. In addition to delighting in his intellectual pursuits, he enjoyed the sundry pleasures of life. And he loved being with people, and connected with those around him with a warmth that went beyond mere affability. One of my fond memories is seeing him join a crowd of youngsters dancing at a social gathering, with an exuberant smile on his face that proclaimed he wasn’t going to let the fun pass him by. He was generous with people to a fault, particularly those younger than him, and engaged with them as equals, without condescension. I can think of many occasions when he spoke warmly and enthusiastically about younger writers, and such encouragement no doubt meant a lot to them.
Ananthamurthy’s engagement with emerging writers in Kannada was perhaps part of a broader, and passionate, concern he had for the fate of Kannada as a living language, and that of other Indian languages. He had a strong and defiant sense of the autonomy and the intrinsic vitality of these languages, and wished to see their traditions live and flourish, resisting the homogenizing tendencies of dominant linguistic cultures. My own sentiments in this regard had drawn me to my first encounter with him. His attempts to see universal themes find a place in Kannada discourse, and to find a place for Kannada in the larger world were valuable guidance.
There is a curious symmetry to the two occasions that book-end my interactions with Ananthamurthy, which I treasure. On the first I, a student of science and a hobbyist in literature, went to listen to him as an iconic literary figure. On the last occasion, he had wanted me, as a scientist, to explain to him the work of a mathematician. As usual patterns of the division of the two cultures go, his is the more remarkable curiosity. But in spirit, he transcended such imaginary divisions.
That I did not have an occasion to explain that work will remain an emblem of many unfinished conversations with him, which I will one-sidedly try to get through in the years to come.
Decoding URA’s poetry
U.R. Ananthamurthy’s poetry is an extension of his thoughts on culture and society. His poems construct a unique poetics, with its origin in the poetical traditions of our country. This essay attempts to analyze the relations bet-ween his poetry and his writing in other genres. In the context of his powerful prose, URA’s poetry was generally relegated to the background. However, one notices that the ideas deve-loped by him in his fiction have subtle parallels in his poetry. I quote: ‘I have never considered poetry and prose as different modes of expression. But there are many periods in my evolution when I have felt that certain things can be expressed only in poetry, where language becomes symbolic and gestural. Prose with its focus on details is incapable of doing that. Both of them are complementary in a search for unique identities.’1 These ideas merit close attention by those interested in a study of a writer’s concerns about literary forms and the corresponding linguistic styles.
Ananthamurthy is best known and appreciated for his short stories, novels, literary criticism and cultural criticism. He began his writing career, however, as a poet. The fact that he did not persist with poetry as his major mode of expression could be a consequence of his personal preferences, as also the cultural needs of his times. This was equally true of many of his gifted contemporaries such as P. Lankesh, Yashawant Chittal, Poornachandra Tejasvi, Girish Karnad, Shanthinatha Desai and others who started writing during the sixth and seventh decades of the previous century. It is significant that all of them were deeply influenced by Gopalkrishna Adiga’s poetry. But they were unwilling to imitate him. Fiction and drama became alternative avenues for their creativity.
If one moves beyond Kannada poetry and looks at the European situation, we notice that the earlier prosaic models of English poetry gradually gave way to William Blake and others of his kind who created a new poetic style, capable of churning an experience to find latent and new meanings. This happened right from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Subsequently, poets seemed more concerned about truths that have to be deduced through one’s vision rather than those that were visible to the eyes. The newness of the language to realize experience became as important as the experience itself. A close scrutiny of the words that poured out of a poet’s inner mind became the felt need of those times. Modernist poets of Kannada concurred with this point of view.
URA attempted to transcend various conceptual models of poetry that prevailed during his youth and forge new ones, which also differed from those adopted by his peers. He says, ‘A few of my stories and some poems were published in the fifties, rather diffidently but truly in search of one’s own identity. In those days, I admired Gopalkrishna Adiga hugely and that has continued to this day... He was ruthlessly dismissive of the poetic practices of his predecessors… But there was a constant endeavour in my writings to be different from Adiga.’2 The modes in which URA has negotiated the challenge posed by changing times become evident when one compares the intensely passionate poems of his early days with the deliberately prose-tinted and totally controlled poems of later periods. I believe that a departure from the ‘tradition’ is also a protest.
Ananthamurthy sidesteps the models forged by his seniors and contempo-rary Kannada poets: Adiga’s nuanced, taut structure; Lankesh’s synthesized lyrical quality and objective attitude; Ramachandra Sharma’s forging of mysterious and unfathomable poems, and A.K. Ramanujan’s exploration of linguistic possibilities were some of these models. URA’s poetry oscillates between two poles. He reverts to mythology whenever his poems become logical and depend on causal relations. He seeks recourse in poems of intellectual pursuits when he gets bogged down in excessive passion and sentiments. By doing this, he is protesting against the demands of his times. This is also the protest of the inner poet against the ‘contextual poet’. It is beyond dispute that a desire to achieve this balance kept him in a state of alertness throughout his career.
URA’s poems written after the mid-’80s are simple and straightforward in terms of their themes and style when compared with his earlier poems, where he makes use of the persona of ‘king’ (raaja) as his ‘mask’. A keen reader of URA’s work knows well his liking for W.B.Yeats and his idea of ‘masks’. Yeats was intrigued by the internal and the external self of a person, i.e., the true person and the aspects a person chooses to represent his self. He wrote, ‘I think all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a rebirth as something not one’s self, something created in a moment and perpetually renewed.’3
URA’s second collection of poetry takes a deviation by getting rid of ‘masks’. This is how a writer deconstructs and rebuilds himself. An excessive use of prose style was novel in Kannada poetry of those times. Many of the stories in his first collection, Endendiguu Mugiyada Kathe (A Story that Never Ends), were lyrical, while the poems he wrote concurrently were closer to prose. Even this was probably a part of his experimentation. During the mid-eighties, however, Kannada literature underwent major changes. The voices of Dalit and ban-daya (rebel) poets became far more prominent. Unswayed by them, URA made a sincere attempt to be himself in his choice of themes and the use of language. The structure of his poems demonstrates how he differed from his peers.
Ananthamurthy agrees with our ancient scholars when they compare poetry with Kanthasammitha (persuasive words uttered by either a wife or a beloved). The act of writing is close to a conversation between lovers, where one continues and completes what the other has said. This probably explains why many of his poems have two words/phrases linked by the conjunction and (mattu) in their titles: ‘Shit and Soul’, ‘The King and the Bat’, ‘Love and Duty’, ‘Dalailama and History’, ‘Gandhi and Henry the Eighth’, ‘The Gypsy and the Tree’ are some examples. It is not only the individuals who complement one another; even ideas and emotions act in tandem. For Ananthamurthy, the intellectual needed to transcend analytical skills; what is needed is a method of expressing the inner turmoil.
One requires this framework in order to internalize URA’s poetry. This multitude of poems that are linked by the conjunction ‘and’ draws our attention to the element of duality and nuanced thoughts that pervade his poetry. The following remarks by him are perti-nent: ‘…My grandfather used to say this as though it was a divinely ordained eternal truth: "There are still some good people living in this world. That’s why it rains regularly and our lands yield crops without fail." These were notions born in a mind with an implicit faith in the other world. It is not possible for me to either console others or console myself with these words, because my rational mind makes me feel embarrassed. I often think that I am waiting to create a poem which could transcend the pitfalls of literal statements and the determinism of logicality, infused with suggested meanings that would make even clever people stare at it in amazement.’4 Nuanced thoughts like these have given rise to many debates which kept the lite-rary and cultural atmosphere of Karna-taka alive and alert from time to time.
An anecdote in URA’s autobio-graphy Suragi unveils his poetic universe beautifully. His family had a maid servant named Abbakka. She conveyed town gossip to his mother. Her cheeks were smeared with turmeric and the vermillion mark on her forehead was prominent. Her eyes were full of love and empathy. She used to share a swig of tobacco with URA’s mother. All these details are delineated fondly. Occasionally Abbakka’s body became a vehicle for deities. This transformation of a human being into a goddess was one of the wonders of his childhood. Once, when Abbakka visited his home, the young URA said in jest: ‘Abbakkanna Gubbakka Kachkondhooytu’ (Abbakka was carried away by a sparrow). His mother was struck by her son’s verbal magic and the incident was narrated to all and sundry. It was nothing great in terms of meaning and imagination, but the alliteration of sounds and the elongated vowels succeeded in lending a dramatic quality to a simple statement. ‘Looking at the incident, from this distance in time, I feel that I was handed over a magical key to a mysterious universe.’5 This is probably the ‘key’ with which he tried to fuse the emotional and the intellectual within the magical realms of poetic language.
In the preface to his second collection of poems, Ajjana Hegala Sukkugalu (The Wrinkles on Grandfather’s Shoulders, 1989), URA opines: ‘For me, poetry is like a visiting guest, who arrives, departs and comes back as he pleases. I was immersed in poetry during the fifth decade of the 20th century, but I became a short story writer. However, I was trying to create poetry in my stories and novels also. Even my intellectual preoccupations are not those of academics. They belong to a person in love with poetry. This is neither a matter for jubilation nor diffidence. This is just what I am.’
He revisits this opinion in Samasta Kaavya. ‘Those were the days when a bat – which is neither a bird nor an animal – was my favourite metaphor. I could not arrive at cocksure decisions… I was finding it difficult to use language in a manner that would convince at least me. Of course, this difficulty persists to this day.’ It is possible for us in these musings to witness his introspective and self- critical personality.
Ananthamurthy’s concept of poetry gave equal importance to intended meaning and the structural devices required to embody that in a poem. But he believed in suggesting the meaning rather than stating it explicitly. This is known as vastudhvani in Indian poetics. The intellectual component of his poems, however, also carried an emotional load. Occasionally his poems assume the tone of a debate and try to explain the pros and cons of a proposition. For instance, in a poem titled ‘Poetry as Archibald MacLeish Perceives It’ (Archibald MacLeish Helu-vante Kavite), URA has this to say:
A poem should be bereft of words
As a bird flies without foot marks
It should be fixed silently in time
As the moon rises in the sky
Poetry should not say anything
Being is everything.
This poem illustrates the ambiguities of language and also its limitations. The title of the poem does not mean just what it states. It also suggests that poetry involves the rhyth-mic movements and tonal variations required in the enunciation of the words ‘Archibald’ and ‘MacLeish’.
URA explains the process of a poet’s search for meaning and a unique idiom, in the poem, ‘Kayaa, Vachaa, Manasaa…’ (‘In Body, Word and Mind…’:
…The idiom of poetry
Is a bent rod
That becomes a hook,
In to the well, it goes,
Lifts it up and
Gives it you
If you are lucky
And if the words are cleansed
…If it dries up
And if strength remains even then
And if there is God’s grace along with the dried up sap
If and if and if. . .
This bloody bitch
(Look at its arrogance)
May give up its rotten habit.
This complex poem demonstrates the elusiveness of language as also its capacity to hold different dimensions of an experience. This plurality of meaning is a striking aspect of URA’s poetics.
The process of confronting the works of a writer like URA is very much akin to the ‘Just Connect’ concept of E.M. Forster. Readers familiar with the works of URA know that his perceptions start at a subjective level and gradually outgrow those limits to encompass wider temporal and spatial contexts. These perceptions coalesce into an integral vision. His method, which brings together different individuals and ideas under a microscope and subjects them to minute analysis, gives rise to a number of questions and debates. It tests the veracity of ideas. This search is conducted with humility, a humility which is also capable of puncturing an exaggerated sense of self-importance. For him, humility was a great virtue. Consider these lines:
Is there an excess or a limit to humility
A man becoming humble
Is like milk solidifying as cream (‘Humility’).
This humility of yours is as sweet as
A Parijaatha flower.
Lord, you bestow your company
To the meanest of insects
Your grace moves in to small seed
You rest in the great unperturbed.
Simple my Lord
This humility of yours (‘This humility of yours’).
During the morning walk
I saw your grace
Glowing sun and a little chill
The permanent is tickled by the fleeting mist.
How many coloured birds
If only you look for them.
Amidst the leaves slowly, serenely, secretly
This adult man gaining weight
Shedding this artificial weight
I am moved by your bounty and beauty
For a moment (‘Love’)
A critical comparison of URA’s ‘Raja’s Requests for the New Year’ and Gopalakrishna Adiga’s celebrated poem Prarthane (Prayer) reveals curious associations between them. Adiga read URA’s poem and later composed his masterpiece. URA had this to say about the incident: ‘My poem is a minor effort. Adiga’s effort is a major work of art which has internalized my poem.’ URA would have discontinued writing poetry if he had taken that as a personal failure. His love for poetry springs from a greater love for life. He wants to be in perpetual wonder. He wants to find his way towards a vision. His poetry wishes to get realized in the readers and the poet wants to see his poems through the eyes of others. Therein lies his joy. This is how the personal is transformed into the social and the universal.
URA is important for his ability to adopt the contemporary political scenario into his poems. We can notice the close connections that prevail bet-ween his poems and work in other literary forms written concurrently. This work, in its totality, makes us realize his sincere attempt to look at political attitudes with a humane approach. It is virtually a war between the writer’s convictions and principles with murky contemporary realities. His writings are infused with an awareness of the contemporary and critical attitudes towards it. He picks up regional issues and studies them in a universal context. This practice saves him from narrow chauvinism.
For instance, consider his poem on M.N. Roy. It brings in diverse personalities such as Ambedkar, Gandhi, Stalin, Nehru, Bose and Jayaprakash Narayan under the scanner and indulges in a comparative study. Focusing on the principles, theories and conflicts of Roy, it concludes that all theories should merge in the individual and result in an integrated stance. The idea that experiences and situations could be viewed from different vantage points is a strand that runs throughout URA’s writings.
The fact that truth gets transformed continuously in the psyche of the individual is another theme that engaged his creativity. This attitude has given a pluralistic dimension to his thoughts and writings. It is per- haps no coincidence that he titled his poetry collection as Samasta Kavya (which means poetry that includes everyone and belongs to everyone) instead of Samagra Kaavya (meaning collected poems). This serves as an important clue to understand his life and writings.
* All translations in this essay are by J.N. Tejashree. URA’s six volumes of poetry include, Hadinaidu Kavitegalu (1970), Ajjana Hegala Sukkugalu (1989), Mithuna (1992),Bidi Kavitegalu (2001), Abhaava (2009) and Pachhe Resort (2011).
1. U.R. Ananthamurthy, Preface, Samasta Kavya (in Kannada). Abhinava Prakashana, Bengaluru, 2011, pp. v, vi, 438, 113, 81, 83, 80, 42.
3. William Butler Yeats, ‘Per Amica Silentia Lunae’, in William H. O’Donnell (ed.), The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats. Later Essays (vol. V). Simon and Schuster, New York, (1917) 1995, p. 10.
4. U.R. Ananthamurthy, Suragi. Akshara Prakashana, Heggodu, 2012, p. 414.
5. Ibid., p. 26.
Women protagonists in URA’s fiction
M.S. ASHA DEVI
OURS is a time of transition. The modern Indian community is looking back and evaluating the path it has taken. Various art forms, including literature, are being reviewed and re-evaluated; and this is a curious, decisive time. It is true that texts of art are always engaged in a dialogue and a confrontation with the established value system. Such texts perform the social and ethical duty of keeping alive the space to confront the establishment, and serve as conscience keepers.
Besides aesthetics and poetics, factors such as caste, class and gender play a big role in such a re-evaluation. They enable new ways of reading and help foreground hitherto neglected aspects in art and literature. Attributing the change solely to fresh research and op-ed articles on ‘social justice’ and ‘gender’ would be to ignore the persistent efforts of the social struggles of the past few decades.
U.R. Ananthamurthy (URA) produced a major part of his literary corpus when a self-proclaimed modernity (navya) was in vogue. I use the term ‘self-proclaimed’ because the modernist’ attempt to differ from the pre-modernists (navodaya) was over-emphasized. As Edgar Alan Poe says: ‘Let the poet be modern / Modern from head to toe’.
This was what navya writers believed in. I say this keeping in mind the immense contributions navya writers made to aesthetics and poetics. The navya movement began as an ambitious protest against pretentiousness and self-deception, but often fell into its own trap. Because the navya writers believed in socialist humanism and considered liberalism as the myth of the weak, they often created literary texts that were anti-life.
Elsewhere I have observed that URA’s oeuvre can be identified with the theoretical phrase, ‘This is mine, yet not mine’ (William Blake), and I endorsed it as a life-evolving process. The protagonists of his ‘trilogy’ (writer K.V. Subbanna named it as such) represent the three stages of evolution. If Naranappa and Jagannatha of the novels Samskara and Bharathipura represent the larva and the caterpillar, Krishnappa of the novel Avasthe(Predicament) evolves into a butterfly. It is an evolutionary process from Naranappa to Krishnappa (from vyashti to samashti).
URA began his confrontation with the value system in a limited way through Naranappa and prepared the ground to convert it into a bigger narrative through Jagannatha. The process reached completion when Krishnappa, by going beyond his own concerns, yielded to the well-being of the community. I wish to clarify that URA’s narrative, for me, includes not merely his stories and novels but his cultural criticism, public talks, and even his dreams of a common school system.
URA was committed to the role of a Kannada and pan-Indian intellectual, fulfilling all functions expected of such a personality. The fundamental question is whether his female protagonists derive from this position. There is little dispute that URA consistently confronted the question of class and caste. As for the feminine sensibility – in his own words – he was interested in it but did not really confront it. This aspect can be discussed by comparing URA’s perspective with two of his contemporaries – writers who focused on women as an inevitable part of their writing – Lankesh and Shanthinath Desai.
Lankesh’s writing is invested with both an attraction to and restlessness towards women as he traces different paths of liberation for women. In an anthology of stories, Kallu Karaguva Samaya (When Stones Melt), the women protagonists Shyamale, Devi and Subhadra, like Anebaddi Rangavva of ‘Mussanjeya Katha Prasanga’, are all travellers in the great gender journey.
The question here is whether the credit should go to Lankesh, the story writer, or Lankesh, the person who threw himself into Karantaka’s public life with a deep passion for changing the sensibility of a whole community. It cannot be denied that Lankesh’s sensibility strengthened women’s discourses in Kannada like never before; it also catalyzed the emergence of genuine women writers through his weekly, Lankesh Patrike, whose writings inspired women to seek liberation on their own.
Shanthinatha Desai is one of the very few writers with a genuine modernist sensibility. He treats women as equal to men. He succeeds in portraying the shifting perspectives and sensibilities of urban women. He grasps the turmoil of women in the institution of marriage. The difficulties and sexual aspects of a women’s life are all grasped without prejudice.
Women occupy a prime place in many of URA’s prominent stories and novels. How are they represented there? Let us look at some of his popular characters who are most debated. Chandri of Samskara is very well known. As Naranappa’s low caste mistress, she plays a crucial role in helping cultivate the inner rebel in his personality. However, her character becomes significant for showing Praneshacharya a way of liberation. She treats Praneshacharya, devastated in the face of life and death questions, with a deep sense of empathy (jeevakarunya), and thus leads him to a very primordial experience.
Scholars have viewed this situation in curious ways. The new world that she ‘reveals’ to him and the unique experiences she provides, transforms him into a new personality. Praneshacharya’s very view of life turns upside down. Much before this incident, Naranappa invites Praneshacharya to sleep with a woman like Chandri. Praneshacharya, undergoing this experience in new circumstances, is one of the most successful parts of the novel.
Praneshacharya, who has experienced life only through theoretic profundity, ‘lives’ it intensely by fulfilling his carnal desires with Chandri. How would this look from Chandri’s perspective? Or, how is Chandri’s character represented in this situation? Doesn’t it seem that she is merely a tool to provide enlightenment for Praneshacharya? Not even a small portion of the legitimacy of his renewed experience of life is granted to her. Her experience is of no relevance at all. It looks like it was her destiny or duty to provide an intense experience to him. There is no hint of anything to her beyond her erotic personality. She is at best a mere sensuous body and not a person in her own right. Now juxtapose this with Praneshacharya’s deep scholarly and intellectual personality. URA’s modernism had not adequately acknowledged the question of gender.
Let me make my theoretical premise clearer. It is possible to perceive a woman’s personality in all its sophistication only by those who have experienced ‘inner awareness and conflict’ about women. This is evident in the two writers discussed earlier: Lankesh and Desai.
Let us consider another woman character of URA’s. Yamunakka of Ghatashraddha is construed as one with an erotic premise who buries herself in mundane chores. The patriarchal violence is documented in detail. Towards the end, she sacrifices herself to the mundane demands of life. It is a true portrayal of the mundane realities of life. But what do we see when we compare the sexual experience of Praneshacharya with those of Yamunakka? For Praneshacharya, the experience provides a ‘divine’ moment, but Yamunakka appears as one who cannot restrain her sensual demands. She is haunted by a primordial physical need, but the author fails to subject the patriarchy of her situation to inquiry. This clearly indicates that URA does not subject a patriarchal system to the necessary introspection or protest the values that subject Yamunakka to unbearable turmoil.
One may recall another important Kannada story, ‘Naa Konda Hudugi’ (The Girl I Killed) by Ananda. The protagonist, though not directly responsible for the death of a woman, decides that he will be unable to free himself of this guilt. What is considered primordial and natural for men and women are treated very differently here.
It is easy to argue that Yamunakka is portrayed as a victim of the social system. But representational tactics decide what a fact suggests in creative terms. Naranappa of Samskara, for instance, attempts to overcome his existential reality through liquor, meat and women, while Jagannatha of ‘Bharathipura’ does the same by holding the holy saligrama in his hand. However, this manner of perception is specifically missing in the representation of Yamunakka.
That URA can represent women with sympathy but not with insight is evident in his portrayal of Gouri in the novel Avasthe. On her return from America, she meets Krishnappa who is already bedridden with paralysis. She approaches him out of the spontaneous love that she holds for him. Interpreting it to mean only an interest in sex, he says that he is in no position to reciprocate. Krishnappa cannot even imagine that a woman could approach him in a maternal way. He fails to acknowledge a womanly warmth and intimacy that transcends mere carnal engagement.
Why does this happen? URA believes that the ability of the human mind to deceive and cheat is immense. This propels much of his writing and thinking. There is a proximate relation between this belief and his views about women. He is a writer whose stories are self-consciously modernist. He believes his stories liberate women because of the manner in which they are portrayed. This is the kind of self-deception the stories are sub-consciously suffused with. Starting from Krishnappa of Avasthe, through the protagonist of Bara (Drought), all the way to the hero of his important last story ‘Pacche Resort’, it is the same.
Consider Rekha, the female lead of ‘Bara’. This is the story of an IAS officer who, despite believing that he can usher in change as a bureaucrat, fails. Though more sensitive than her husband, she is confined to following the experiments of her husband. ‘Pacche Resort’ is an acclaimed story that URA wrote in the last phase of his career. Here too, the female protagonist Bhagirathi faces a similar fate. Starting her career as an IAS officer, she gives up her job. But where does she find meaning in life? It is in the adoration of her mature body by her childhood friend, who utters her name, ‘Rathi, Rathi’ (Rathi, the wife of Kama).
Without critically engaging with and interrogating a value system that consumes and discards woman, an author indirectly endorses the system. URA’s stories are fraught with such danger. It is sad to see that a great writer, who practised a healthy socialism throughout his life and held Mahashweta Devi, Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy as the heroes of contemporary India, failed to adequately address the question of women. Yet, while lamenting such a loss, we need to take into account another social truth as well. It is relevant to us for various reasons.
How we choose to confront gender and other challenges posed by Indian society matters. The objectivity, openness and self-criticism required to address caste, particularly Dalit issues, is not easy to come by. Addressing the feminist question is equally difficult. Hence the changing evaluative criteria in art and literature have become an ordeal by fire for all writers, male or female.
I am aware of presenting my views in a slightly exaggerated manner, but I believe this is necessary to address a deep-rooted problem.
* Translated by S.R. Ramakrishna.
Thinking through Ananthamurthy
I knew Ananthamurthy well before I knew him as a writer. My father’s friend, he often came home, and stayed on for days. During one such stay in the early 1970s, he spent most of his time sitting in one room, writing page after page for several days. Much later I came to know that he was writing his novel, Bharathipura.
I vividly remember an incident from those days. I was 11-12 years old and found it intriguing to see a person writing all day. I would go stand in front of the room, peep from the corner of the door to see what he was doing.
Once, I was caught. At that moment, instead of writing he was looking towards the door and thinking. He suddenly saw me and said, ‘Good that you came when I needed you. Tell me...,’ he continued, asking me a specific detail from the story Alice in Wonderland. Rural boy that I was, I had no clue that there was a story by that name and stood silently. He then asked me what I read. Without knowing how to answer such a question, I blurted outChandamama. Immediately he started a conversation with me on Chandamama stories and made me narrate a couple that I had recently read.
I mention this episode because years later, when I read Bharathipura, I found in it a reference not only to Alice in Wonderland, but also a couple of Chandamama-like stories, which I secretly cherish as my contribution to that novel! I often wonder if this might be the subconscious reason why I regard Bharathipura as his best writing, an informed choice that I made decades later.
I encountered Ananthamurthy as a writer and thinker when I was studying in the 12th standard. I read his extraordinary essay on existentialism published in his first collection of essays, Prajne Mattu Parisara (Consciousness and the Environment, 1971). The essay begins with the story of a young man in Europe who has to make a difficult choice between his duty as a citizen and responsibility towards his mother. He goes on to search for an answer to his dilemma through Marxism, Christian faith, and finally existentialism. Interestingly, the essay is like an open-ended play – where there is a central character and several possibilities of action. It is also something like a long monologue that reminds us of the play, Hamlet.
At that time, a classmate of mine who was facing a problem with his parents also read this essay. We spent hours together applying the essay to his life, embarking on a futile search for concrete solutions to his dilemma. After many days, my friend announced that he had found an answer through that essay. I was curious and asked him, ‘But Ananthamurthy does not offer you an answer there’; to which my friend responded, ‘But he gives you a way of thinking.’ This, it became clear to me later, was essentially what Ananthamurthy did all his life – with his writing, speeches and actions as a writer, popular speaker and public intellectual in Karnataka.
I can give any number of examples for this from his works of fiction. His story ‘Mouni’ (The Silent One, 1966) is a confrontation between Appanna Bhatta and Kuppanna Bhatta, two average Brahmin landowners from a Malnad village, stuck in an entangled property dispute. The former is talkative, practical and therefore more successful in life, while the latter is silent, an introvert and impractical. At the end of the story, the practical one wins the battle in a worldly sense. However, when Kuppanna comes for the final encounter, Appanna remains completely silent, and through his silence ‘defeats’ the former. There is nothing ‘political’ in this story except for a dramatic confrontation between two characters; the story does not even comment on either of them, except that it provides the reader a richly variegated way of thinking which is evocative enough to enable us to read the story in many contexts, ranging from feudal land relations to globalization.
Another story, little known outside Kannada, is ‘Clip Joint’ (1964). It is a story about an Indian student in England who goes on a pornographic trip with his colleague, and as one experience leads to the next, it becomes a never-ending search for bodily pleasures. Alongside this physical journey is also a mental journey – the Indian student remembers his grandfather who embarked on tapasya, an experiment in which he progressively renounces bodily pleasures. Here again we have a drama with two characters contrary in nature, but the story privileges neither of these journeys. However, at the end, there is a question – are these two trips not isomorphic?
I first read ‘Clip Joint’ during my college days, and later, when I went to the UK for training in theatre, it came back to me as a plot for a student production that I had to do. But for a variety of reasons, I found myself unable to adapt this story into a play. While I was desperately searching for a way out, I suddenly remembered the classical Sanskrit farce, Bhagavadajjukeeyam, which I felt embodies Ananthamurthy’s ‘Clip Joint’ way of thinking. I finally produced it; in English it was called ‘The Priest and the Prostitute’. I mention this as an instance of how Ananthamurthy has been with me all these years.
The two best examples of this kind of dramatic positioning of a way of thinking are Ananthamurthy’s celebrated story ‘Sooryana Kudure’ (The Stallion of the Sun, 1995), and his novel Bharathipura (1973). ‘Sooryana Kudure’ is the classic instance of a confrontation between two key characters – Ananthu, the protagonist, and Hade Venkata, a childhood acquaintance from his ancestral village. Initially, Ananthu suspects the other, even thinking that the other is ‘useless’. Then the educated protagonist probes his idiot friend with sharp comments as well as through a series of monologues with himself. Hade Venkata’s answer to all this is mostly in the form of silence, by completely ‘ignoring’ the presence of the other. At a climactic moment of the story, Hade Venkata takes Ananthu to his home and gives him an elaborate oil bath (abhyanjana), which eventually takes the form of a ritualistic ceremony. The process begins to resemble something that Ananthamurthy himself has elsewhere termed, raavu bidisuva kriye, an act of exorcising the devil. We do not know who the devil is, nor who cures whom, but the reader definitely begins to confront what could be seen as a ‘clash of civilizations’.
Unlike many readers who think that ‘Sooryana Kudure’ and Samskara (1965) epitomise the best of Ananthamurthy’s literary output, I for one think that Bharathipura is the best representation of the Ananthamurthy method. Samskara is attractive, enchanting and captures the reader with a wonderful metaphor presented in a clear and crystalline structure. With a background in theatre history, I often see Samskara as a medieval Christian morality play in the garb of a contemporary tale. History books inform us that a common feature of the settings in which such morality plays were staged, there was heaven at one end, hell on the other and all other locations lay in between.
In Samskara, Praneshacharya’s house is at one end of the village, Narayanappa resides at the other end; this might signify heaven and hell. Theagrahara brahmanas of various hues – the serious, the comic, the hungry, the lecherous, the pious, the greedy and so on – lie in between. Praneshacharya’s search to unravel the shastric conundrum of how to perform the final rites of an outcaste appears almost like the agony of a medieval Christian saint. Therefore, when a brahmin friend once told me that the predicament of Samskara does not constitute a problem for a traditionalist, because once he realizes that the shastra does not offer a solution, he would resort to apaddharma, which recommends context specific solutions. I tend to agree with him (but also advised him to read this novel as a metaphor, and not a ‘realistic’ social science document).
However, after reading Samskara if one enters Bharathipura, everything in the landscape, timescape and the mindscape changes. From the serene, but plague ridden agrahara of yonder times, one is thrown into a busy street of a contemporary Indian small town, where everything seems erratically out of sync – from traffic to human behaviour. The characters in this novel are also ‘sketchy’ compared to the earlier novel; their caste identities have receded to the background (but still strongly present), and many other identities (such as merchants, administrators, politicians and so on) have been made stronger. Therefore, it is impossible to draw a clean and clear character sketch of any of these people. Jagannatha, the protagonist is no different. He is many ideas rolled into one: the Lohiaite socialist of the ’70s, the environmentalist of the ’80s and even the ‘decolonizer of the mind’ of the ’90s. With such diversities residing together in its characters, plot and structure, some Kannada critics argue that Bharathipura is incomplete and patchy; I, however, feel that the incompleteness is its biggest strength.
Unlike the crystalline metaphor of Samskara, Bharathipura is a ‘broken and scattered metaphor’ and, therefore, can show more than what it reflects. Its incompleteness is rather an invitation to the reader to struggle and play with it. It is like pieces from several jigsaw puzzles thrown together, which do not combine to make a picture. Therefore, I have always felt that while Samskara is beautiful, Bharathipura is evocative, richer in its resonance, and that the Ananthamurthy method that I referred to earlier takes on a much more complex formulation in this novel. Instead of two key characters confronting each other, we have here a multitude of confrontations, multiple ways of thinking and, thus, multiple possibilities of reading the work. Bharathipura, therefore, represents to me the high point of Ananthamurthy’s method.
Now, to extend this method from Ananthamurthy’s fiction into his essays, and even to the foundation of his activism as a public intellectual in Karnataka, I take the example of his controversial essay, ‘Bettale Pooje Yaake Koodadu?’ (Why not Worship in the Nude? Written in 1986, published in Kannada in 1996). The essay starts off as a response to the incidents surrounding the ritualistic ‘nude worship’ that took place as part of a tradition in his home district, Shimoga. In 1984, some social activists went there to protest and stop the practice, accompanied by a band of press photographers to record it. But since the worshippers outnumbered the protestors, a complete reversal took place. The worshippers not only performed the ritual but also attacked the protestors and photographers, forcing some of them to march with them half nude.
The first part of the essay dramatically narrates a meeting that URA’s journal Rujuvatu had organized in Mysore to discuss the implications of this incident. Like many of his stories and novels, different sets of ‘characters’ representing anthropologists, feminists, civil society workers and writers (including the author himself) confront each other at that meeting, arguing vehemently for and against the practice. The author then moves into a self-reflective mode that leaves the debate far behind; it notes how many of his past works have come out of just such a confrontation of ideas. The essay eventually concludes that most of his contemporary writers in Kannada too share this method, though in different ways. Bypassing the controversy surrounding that essay, I propose to read it as a meta-metaphor that attempts to understand the mystery of its own metaphor making.
Most of Ananthamurthy’s public interventions mirror the method of this essay. Some readers found the contrasted reading problematic; some accused him of opportunism; others grumbled about betraying the idea that he himself had set up, each time he took a controversial stand on an issue. During the pro-Kannada Gokak Movement of the late 1970s, he articulated a pro-English sentiment, and became unpopular, even being branded anti-Kannada. In the controversy over nude worship, his articulations on behalf of the worshipping community were viewed as anti-modernist. He was calleddwandwamurthy (idol of contradictions) and, throughout his public life, the right hated him while the left never believed him. Many brahmins accused him for being popularly anti-brahminical, while many dalits viewed him with suspicion as a brahmin in disguise. But Ananthamurthy was unmoved by any of these labels, and continued to make controversial statements.
I want to suggest that he was not making controversial statements; rather, he followed his method of understanding one position always in juxtaposition to its opposite side. The reason for this, I feel, is that he was at the core of his personality a ‘writer’, probably viewing life as a metaphor, and treating contradictions as a way of advancing thinking. In my experience as a theatre director, I often see actors mistaking posturing for acting. I guess Ananthamurthy resisted this trap at a sociopolitical level, of proclamations of activism being mistaken for action.
Ananthamurthy was never my teacher, but I learnt many lessons from him while watching him function as the director of the Ninasam Culture Course that my organization conducted every October for the last 25 years. While it was indeed very rare for him to give long and comprehensive lectures in those sessions, he was nevertheless present in all the sessions from morning to night, responding wherever he was excited. In those short but charged interventions, he made remarkable connections between theatre and literature, between music and politics, between theory and practice, between life and the arts. He was essentially a ‘conversationalist’ and therefore always eager to engage with the other, especially when the other was an opponent.
I remember many instances when young people asked him unrelated questions after a speech. He would never snub or brush them away, but rather correct the question itself. Typically, he would say ‘...instead of asking this question that way, it will be more significant if you ask it this way’, and then proceed to answer it. As I watched him do this, the expression on his face made it appear as if he was not merely in dialogue with the other, but also with himself. That is exactly what his characters did in his essays, stories and novels. There are many writers and thinkers I admire, but it is indeed hard to find another person with such a culture of conversation.
A few weeks ago I finished reading Ananthamurthy’s last book, Hindutva athavaa Hind Swaraj (Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, 2014). Prompted by Ananthamurthy’s anti-Modi statements in the recent years, many think that this book provides an intellectual justification of his anti-Modi stance. But for me the central concern of this treatise is different. In this long essay, Ananthamurthy engages in an extended monologue on the crisis in Indian politics post-2002. He traces the crisis back to the times of Savarkar and Gandhi, and eventually poses a question on how to remain democratic even as one resists majoritarianism. Like in his writings, he does not give us ‘his’ answer to the question but transfers the legacy of thinking to the reader.
My journey with Ananthamurthy continues. He is physically no more, but there are times when I feel I am still at that door, peeping and watching him creating a world through his words.
* I am indebted to Deepa Ganesh and Vivek Shanbhag for their help in preparing this essay. And, thanks to Shiv Visvanathan for making me write it.
The creative process
‘Tell me a story, something…,’ Ananthamurthy had urged me on that still evening. What story could one possibly tell a master storyteller? Kumar Gandharva’s rendering of ‘Sunta Hain Guru Gyaani’ hadn’t let go of me all through the day. As a result, Kabir was uppermost on my mind when he coerced me into telling a story. URA was very fond of nirguni bhajans, so I decided to narrate a little story which was a prelude to the Kabir composition: ‘Heli Mhaari, Nirbhay Reeje Re’.
There’s a large forest with a huge tree. A little bird visited the tree every day. She fed on the fruits and flowers of the tree, had a happy conversation with the indulgent, generous tree and flew away to return the next day. One day, there was a forest fire and the tree began to burn. ‘You have wings, fly away,’ the tree implored. The bird, with tears in her eyes, refused to go away. ‘I have eaten your fruits and flowers. My friend, to abandon you is notdharma. How can I be separated from you, let me burn along with you,’ the bird says.
The story stops there; echoing the vast, eternal expanse of the desert of Rajasthan, the folk musicians sing ‘Heli Mhaari… (My friend, fill your heart with compassion, be fearless)’. The endearing story that I narrated to URA is perhaps something that the folk singers have added to take you to the nirgunaexperience of Kabir through the saguna. After moments of silence, URA stated that self-negation was an important aspect of Kabir.
The conversation then shifted to Kumar Gandharva, a musician whose affinity with Kabir fascinated him. Talking about Kabir’s self-negation, we recalled Kumarji’s self-negation. URA, in his poem ‘Kumar Gandharva’, points out how Kumarji could negate his ordinary self through the creative act and achieve the shoonyata that Kabir spoke of.
‘I heard you first at Lalit Mahal
I was being born again. I felt
the sound coming out of you
wave after wave
was there before you were born.
I saw the listeners sitting before you
‘My first encounter with Kumar Gandharva was in Mysore in 1989. His music and our meeting later was so intense that I just had to write a poem,’ URA explained once again. I had heard this anecdote from him many times earlier. Each time, with genuine fascination, he would recall how Kumar Gandharva could leap beyond the self and soar to the edge of the text and leave one with its mysteries, but with equal felicity also completely shed this mystical self and come back to being an ordinary man thinking of food, pain and all the everydayness. ‘His music was transmitting the power of Kabir’s nirgun into his listeners. I was mesmerized. But later, as we all sat down for dinner, the manner in which he recovered himself into an ordinariness was astonishing,’ he said. This was something that he had written about in the poem too.
‘Grumbling that your hand was swollen with rheumatism, your leg too, praising the Mysore climate, praising my friend Ashok from Bhopal a little too much, you showed you were an ordinary fellow who could be my friend. You conspired to free me from the spell that bound me.’
After hours of intense music, Kumar Gandharva had spoken continuously, hungrily devouring his food as if he simply could no longer bear the wild,avadhoota Kabir riding on him; he had to break free from him. ‘I was disappointed as he stripped himself of his mystic attainment. But I realized that anyone who leads such an ecstatic life, in his case of music, has to transform himself into the ordinary. The intensity can become unbearable. Aa putta hak-kiya utkatateyoo inthadde alwa… suduva utkatate… (the intensity of the little bird is similar, isn’t it… the longing to burn…),’ he observed, uniting self-negation and intensity in one stroke.
‘I wondered how that mad Kabir from the far North could haunt our southern Kumar from Belgaum. I admired the celestial Gandharva’s worldly wisdom – how he freed himself by hurling that mad creature on innocents like us.’
Didn’t he speak of dissolving boundaries? Was it the dissolving line between the singer and the listener? Was he talking about how Kumar Gandharva dissolved the ‘guna’ of the text into ‘nirguna’ and thereby take Kabir’s formlessness onto a higher step? Or was he speaking of the leaps that both of them, Kumar Gandharva and he, were making into that Kabir space and thereby negating their selves?
I have often wondered what it is about Kumar Gandharva that makes him the most authentic voice of Kabir’s nirguni poetry? What made him so dear even to URA? This URA, who would lodge a complaint against Kumar Gandharva for demystifying himself, was someone who too comfortably straddled both the worlds of ‘ordinariness’ and ‘extraordinariness’. Was he perchance trying to understand his own worldly self and the pangs that he experienced through this musician? Many such thoughts swirl through my mind as I try to dig deeper and attempt to understand the creative processes of these dissolving boundaries.
Ananthamurthy would often remark that in good writing there invariably comes a point when it escapes the writer’s conscious self. The characters assume their own will and begin to take a route of their own. Such writing involves labour as well as a magic, the inexplicable element in them. ‘I always feel I am writing well when I go beyond my opinions; then, incidents present themselves to me like gifts from an unknown source,’ he would say. ‘I believed then in Eliot’s theory of impersonality. The man who suffers and the man who creates are different. Therefore, the writer is present in his work only as a catalytic agent. I like Eliot’s humility and his suspicion of author-arrogance but I no longer agree with him.’ He felt that Blake was more profound on this matter. Blake, and also Bendre, who uses the metaphor of a spider spinning out its own outer web from an inner substance, understand the sea change of the creative process. ‘A writer feels lucky and surprised when it happens. Then it would be possible for a writer to say with Blake "this is mine yet not mine". I want to be able to communicate such a feeling to my audience.’
Kumar Gandharva too often spoke of dissolving boundaries in the creative space, ‘the mine, yet not mine feeling’. ‘When I want to compose a bhajan, I don’t just read the poetry. I look, then I leave it alone, look and leave it alone. What does Kabir want to say? The whole thing that he has said, I say it myself – then I think… no that’s not it. There must be something higher that can be said through the medium of svara. Only then there is some point in composing.’ This wonderment and negotiation was a relentless process. In a conversation, he insisted that it was not in his music, but rather embedded in Kabir’s poetry itself. ‘No, I didn’t do anything. This exists in Kabir’s poem itself,’ he insisted emphatically. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Kumar Gandharva enables his listeners to enter into that experience of shoonyata, the universe of emptiness where all that is mine dissolves into the not mine.
‘Bring me some Kumar Gandharva’s nirguni bhajans,’ URA asked. Text, he said was only a pretext. We argued over it. Musical meaning is perhaps greater than lyrical meaning, and perhaps they have a meeting point – we finally agreed on this. ‘To achieve the quality of nirguna in music is very hard. To bring in meaning and yet emphasize no-meaning is not easy,’ he added. Allama Prabhu, the 12th century Kannada mystic poet, presents probably the greatest example of nirguna. He creates a language for himself through which he attempts a perpetual negation. ‘You arrive at a meaning, but you are also giving up the meaning.’
But Raghava Menon in his book, The Musical Journey of Kumar Gandharva, makes an observation that stands contrary to common notions of musical meaning. ‘He sang out of the bandish and not out of the raga,’ he writes. Kumar Gandharva subordinated the raga to the bandish, never letting the raga take priority over the bandish. ‘This was the consequence of a highly developed and delicate literary grasp of the nature of the words of a language and the way they are spoken while being sung,’ writes Menon. For Kumar Gandharva, the content and composition were equally important – the poetry of Kabir which was his philosophical voice, finding expression in his music. In other words, Kumar Gandharva who believed that thesvaroopa (form, structure) of the raga emanates from the nature of the bandish believed in the superiority of the idea and not of form.
Ananthamurthy would make similar observations, especially with respect to poetry. He often said that rhyme, alliteration, scheme, the ornamental aspects of poetry, are not as important as the poem itself. ‘It can be a prose poem too,’ he would say, particularly during the days that he was translating the poetry of Brecht and Rilke. ‘Let ideas determine the form; form should not control ideas’, he would repeatedly say. Raghava Menon captures this beautifully with respect to Kumar Gandharva, which, in a way, is also true of URA’s ideas of literature. ‘While there was a flexibility with respect to Kumar on the characteristics of gharana, he was inflexible in his vision of what music should be, boundless, beyond frontiers and paradigms.’
URA and Kumar Gandharva were rooted in their respective traditions, passionately engaged and in constant dialogue with it. URA drew his inner reserves from the likes of Shivaram Karanth, Gandhi, Ramana and Ramakrishna, but built his own thought on their legacy. ‘Like everyone else, I too strive to find my "voice",’ Kumar Gandharva had said. ‘One needs to keep at it hoping to find the elusive voice.’
In many of our everyday conversations, URA would speak of rejuvenation. ‘I have to begin afresh everyday, else this samsara is too much to take. Also, my yesterday’s ideas have to find new resonance today.’ Once, when he wrote a story after a gap of nearly two decades, he telephoned in great excitement from Kerala. ‘I am so happy that something which I thought was long over in me was reborn today.’ But once he began dialysis, this metaphor assumed a different meaning. ‘I am born every day, with new blood flowing in me…,’ he would say, and this was never just literal. ‘I am a practitioner of the most perishable art: everyday I die singing. That Kumar Gandharva who was singing, that raga Tilak Kamod that he sang – both are dead. Tomorrow again Tilak Kamod will be sung, and Kumar Gandharva will sing, but it will not be the same. In music whatever has happened once, by whichever person, may happen again, but it will not be the same,’ this was the creative Kumar Gandharva speaking.
Ananthamurthy was always thinking, revising, revisiting, reformulating… in the process he appeared inconsistent. But in the deeper sense he was shattering the ego, the process of self (sva) visarjane. He did it to Praneshacharya, to Jagannatha, to Ananthu, to Kuppanna Bhatta and each of his characters. Kumar Gandharva, through his music, was constantly pushing the boundaries. He was reworking tradition, and had also placed Kabir ‘shoonyata’ in the essence of his being. The sense of ‘I’ to both these path-breakers represented a roadblock to their destination. ‘Let your intelligence be grounded, listen to the earth,’ says Kabir. URA was always listening, to everyone. In the process of listening and thinking, he was reinventing. Kumar Gandharva epitomized Kabir’s ‘nirbhay, nirguna, gaaonga’, and URA personified it – the joy of freedom and of losing one’s self-identity.
The tree, the bird, keep rising like the phoenix. They perish, but they live on.
1. Translated by Linda Hess.
GANESH N. DEVY
I first met him in 1980, in Mysore. He was a professor at the university and taught English Literature. Having read V.S. Naipaul’s account about him and heard about his activities during the Emergency from a Kannada writer friend, I had always wanted to meet him. In those years, Professor C.D. Narasimhaiah’s literary centre, Dhvanyaloka, used to attract scholars and writers from different parts of the country. I had gone there for a seminar when, during an afternoon session, I saw him. The Kannada Dalit writer, Devanoor Mahadeva and English novelist, R.K. Narayan were present too.
I recall Ananthamurthy making a brief comment on how he preferred Kannada writing over the Indo-English – as it was called those days – and why he admired Dalit writers, but would not himself like to write like them. He knew he was a modernist and belonged to the Navya school of Kannada literature. While he had no difficulty in bearing a close literary kinship to D.H. Lawrence and Albert Camus, he wrote out of an ethos that spoke of his Udupi childhood. He drew sustainance from K.V. Puttappa and Gopalkrishna Adiga. While attached to the politics of Lohia, he knew that he did not have to hide his identity as a Brahmin.
Here was a writer with wide horizons but whose cultural roots were intact, whose political commitment was progressive but respect for freedom of the individual uncompromised. He was, therefore, unusual for the time – simultaneously traditional and modern, at once critical and compassionate to both tradition and modernity. His brief comment that afternoon in the winter of 1980 convinced me that I was going to like and admire him for a long time.
During this first and fleeting meeting, I was a mere greenhorn, and there was no chance of him ever registering my presence at the Dhvanyaloka discussion. When I met him again – this time in Thiruvananthapuram at another literary seminar – it came as a bit of a surprise when he told me that he knew I was a student of Shantinath Desai, a highly respected contemporary of his in Kannada literature. URA steered the conversation towards a comparison between Gandhi and Aurobindo, sympathetic to both but preferential to Gandhi. This too came as a surprise; my doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo and I did not imagine that he would have known about this. Those were times when academic hierarchies were taken rather seriously and it was ‘natural’ for professors to be intolerant of dissenting younger colleagues.
Playing safe for the first few minutes of the conversation, I stuck to inanities. But, within minutes, I realized that this professor was serious about the conversation and was inviting me to express my convictions, my understanding, my response. Despite the differences in our views, the empathy with which he listened to what I said struck me as very unusual. Also that he thought of himself not as a scholar, not as an academic, not even a literary artist, but as a thinker, as a kind of public intellectual. This put me at ease in talking to him and our conversation became more natural.
Since then we met in numerous places and had short and long conversations. Increasingly, they became easy and enriching as we rarely talked of ‘isms’, books and authors. Invariably we spoke of movements, contexts, cultures and nations. Lohia, Gandhi, Marx, Ambedkar, Tagore, J. Krishnamurti, Aurobindo and Coomaraswamy cropped up as familiar stops during these conversations. In these conversations, we would refer to what was traditional and what was modern as if we had easy access to both and could be equally critical and conformist to both, as if we were free to do this without seeming to contradict ourselves. It was this freedom ‘to be at once there and not there, to contain paradoxes within oneself’ that he chased through his entire life. For me, U.R. Ananthamurthy remains an extraordinary example of a never ending quest for the right to be at home in alienation, becoming an alien at home. I felt close to him because of this. He felt comfortable conversing with me because he understood I was not going to typecast him in any literary ‘ism’.
During the eighties, I had launched a journal for literary translation. Since it was visualized as a bridge between languages, it was titled Setu. It appeared in English as well as Gujarati. I wanted to introduce Ananthamurthy to Gujarati readers, and so decided that his Ghatashraddha would be translated into Gujarati for publication in Setu. Ajit Kulkarni, a physicist at the Baroda Planetarium, undertook to translate it. The ethos of Ghatashraddha is that of a traditional pathshala of the forties. The Gujarat of the eighties had no clue of that ethos; nor was a really appropriate strain of language available to bring it alive in Gujarati. Ajit Kulkarni’s only option was to make up for the ‘lack’ by generously using Sanskrit terms. This he did well and the translation managed to create a work fairly close to the original Ghatashraddha. Most of all, the experience of love seen at a tender age, without fully knowing what it is, came through quite well. Readers in Gujarati responded to Ananthamurthy’s fiction as warmly as they would respond to L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between, a similar story from a slightly earlier era and a different culture.
Before Ghatashraddha appeared in Gujarati, the literary class in Gujarat had read about U.R. Anathamurthy in the pages of Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. They had also heard about him through three of his literary friends who worked in Gujarat – M.G. Krishnamoorthy and A. K. Ramanujan – both had worked briefly at the Baroda University during the early sixties – and Kurtakoti, who taught at Vidyanagar till he retired in the eighties. By then, A.K. Ramanujan’s outstanding translation of Samskara had already carried Anathamurthy’s name outside Kannada to other languages in India, and other English speaking countries.
In the field of post-colonial studies – described during the eighties as Commonwealth literature – there was, at the time, an active debate on the authenticity of literary production in English, which for most African and Asian writers was a second language, not their mother tongue. And with critics like Meenakshi Mukherjee and Helen Tiffin, Samskara, became the most prominent example of ‘authentic’ Indian literature. Of course, they would simultaneously argue that the ‘twice born’ Indian English writing or the African English writing had an authenticity of its own, but works like Samskara exemplified an authenticity drawing upon an ability to be natural at once in two cultures.
This debate cropped up everywhere in discussions about Indian writing in English. And throughout the seventies and eighties, it engaged writers in Indian languages who felt that their writing had not received the kind of attention like the works of Tagore or Premchand in an earlier time. Indians writing in English were being discussed by Indians, who felt that it was necessary to make a common cause with writers from other former colonies as a strong rejoinder to the colonial cultural impact. They were also being discussed in the UK as literature in England was passing through a lean phase, and good books had started coming out of the colonies. In all these discussions, works like Samskara – not written in but available in English through an AKR translation and with OUP as its publisher – figured prominently as examples of authentic Indian language literature. Through these debates, Anathamurthy became a familiar name in literary circles throughout the English speaking world.
Within India, the post-Nehru era, the post-Emergency time, the rise of a new generation with high aspirations, with rapid urbanization pulling India away from the cultural memory of rural lore, the spread of English hurting the life fountains within Indian languages, the related emergence of spirituality cults, adjustment politics and memory fragmentation, collectively made Samskara increasingly meaningful. In one of our conversations, I mentioned to Ananthamurthy that his short novel almost stood like an eloquent critique of India of the day. He responded by saying that he feared it probably did. Little did the readers of Samskara outside Karnataka know that there was an Anathamurthy who wrote poems and short stories as well. Bharatipura andAvasthe, novels larger in span and more complex in its weave, too, were translated into English, but failed to receive the same attention. Ananthamurthy continued to remain outside Karnataka as the writer of Samskara, just as Srilal Shukla continued to be identified as the Raag Darbari writer outside the Hindi world. But, to his pan-Indian reputation, two more strands were added towards the end of the eighties – of being an excellent institution builder and as a cultural activist.
Towards the end of that decade, he was chosen to head the Mahatma Gandhi University at Kottayam in Kerala as its vice chancellor. When he concluded his term, he was asked to head the National Book Trust as its chairman; and probably, even before he completed his tenure at the NBT, Ananthamurthy was elected to preside over the Sahitya Akademi. Throughout the nineties, URA became a familiar presence in Delhi, gently guiding those innumerable discussions that the Sahitya Akademi organized during his time and firmly pushing the NBT and the Sahitya Akademi to more relevant areas of literary discourse. Before his time, these institutions were a little too burdened by a general atmosphere of respect and respectability. He loosened the straitjacket and infused an air of free discussion, dissent and open inquiry. He managed to lower the average age of participants in the Akademi’s seminars from strictly a 50 plus to a generally 30 and 40. Youth was given a chance, their voice was given a hospitable place.
He did this all knowingly, leading the institutions from the front, but without ever allowing a coterie to take control. What added to the glory of URA’s heading these national institutions was his graceful respect for dissent and his charismatic personality, an unrivalled combine. He brought it to other institutions he headed or advised, whether it was the Film Institute in Pune or the CSDS in Delhi. URA’s way of working with institutions was unique.
But, probably, the one institution that most consumed him was Ninasam at Heggodu with which he remained involved ever since Subbana, his friend from his young days, started it in the stunningly beautiful environs of Shimoga. A Ninasam Culture Course, its annual fete, without the towering presence of Ananthamurthy is difficult to imagine. He brought to Heggodu all that was his – learning, questioning, literary acumen, political philosophy, activism, generosity, grace, anxieties, everything that made URA what he was when left to himself.
During the early years of the nineties, a curious essay titled ‘Why Worship in the Nude?’ circulated in India. It was written in the wake of a pitched protest against the practice of women being required to worship in the nude at a folk-pilgrimage site. The protest had mobilized enlightened opinion against what looked like a ‘primitive’ practice, obviously detrimental to women’s dignity. On the other side were defenders of the practice who wanted to retain the autonomy of their faith and opposed any interference in the Hindu ways of worship and middle class morality. Anathamurthy wrote a detailed critique of this phenomenon and the protest. I believe it to be as thoughtful as his novel, Bharatipura. He found it necessary to defend both views and at the same time be critical of both for reasons stated with extreme precision of word and tone. If anyone felt, going by Samskara alone, that URA was like Albert Camus, reading this essay would make him look more like Sartre, a philosopher of ‘the human condition’.
After he moved out of Mysore, first to Kottayam and then for intermittent stays in Delhi, he was probably hoping to move to his village, but ended up in Bangalore. He spent nearly two decades there as the conscience keeper of Karnataka. At the same time he also played at being the crusader for the city and Kannada. Thus resulted his public stand on the question of the Kannada language and the name of the city, now called Bengaluru as advocated by him. These decades also saw an unusual increase in his writing.
I met him several times in Bangalore, of which two were very special. The first time was just when he had decided to move there and I had decided to quit teaching at the Baroda University for taking up the work of revitalizing folklore in the languages of the Adivasis. This was in a semi-formal meeting of the Sahitya Akademi with him, K. Satchidanandan and Chandrashekhara Kambar present. I presented some slides on tribal communities using a portable slide projector I had borrowed from the architect Karan Grover. URA watched the slides and agreed that I bring out a series of books based on the work. However, he looked worried, and genuinely so, about my finances. He asked if the risk of going hungry did not bother me; if I had carefully thought about my plans. I had, and knew the implications well. So despite his concern and worry, I took the next step. On his part, he made a provision for a small stipend without my asking for it. In the years that followed, I heard from numerous friends that he was over-generous in his compliments about the work I was doing. I had based my After Amnesia on the key terms ‘marga’ and ‘desi’, terms that URA too had made familiar in his lectures. This time, he knew that I had probably gone a bit too far into the desi.
The last time I met him in Bangalore – though we did meet in between in other cities – was after a gap of eighteen years. By now I was neck deep into the People’s Linguistic Survey and had gone to Bangalore in relation to some work with it. With the help of Vivek Shanbhag – a writer I genuinely admire and who happens to be related to Anathamurthy – I made it to the Ananthamurthy house. He told me that URA was on dialysis several times a week. The day I was there was not one of those, and we could have a long conversation. His wife Esther, his daughter and Vivek were all in the room. I was aware that they did not want him to feel too exhausted by my visit. They knew that they were in vigil over a genius. In my heart I prayed for his health. He asked me about the language survey and after hearing me, he said that this was the kind of work that one must do. Sporting his peculiar smile, a smile that was only his – at once shy and wise – he said, ‘Eh, Devy, you have done it.’ For me this was like a long awaited endorsement of the path I had chosen in life. I left the URA house with Vivek. One knew that to expect time to stop was foolish, to expect it to hold Anathamurthy for long was greedy. I was at that moment shamelessly both.
In between these meetings in Bangalore, I met him once in Ahmedabad. He had come for the convocation of the university established by Mahatma Gandhi, the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. His host was the eminent Gandhian, and an equally eminent writer, Narayan Desai. Narayanbhai invited some of us to come for an evening meeting. Seeing the two together, it was not unnatural for one to think of a meeting, in some older time, between Tagore and Gandhi. However, that was another age. This was Gujarat in the first decade of the 21st century. The contexts had changed; so had the meanings of words like faith and commitment, freedom and expression.
Both Narayanbhai and Ananthamurthy, in their hearts, had been deeply agonized by the rapid shift in the social discourse, worried about the rise of intolerance and let down by the silence of the literary community. They said so. A few months before Ananthamurthy passed on, he made this feeling known to the world in no uncertain terms. Then he left us, leaving behind a void. If Mahasweta Devi and Narayanbhai Desai are by now unable to do what they did earlier as our conscience keepers, and if U.R. Anathamurthy too is no longer with us, I wonder, and worry, from where and how public intellectuals will arise in India to defend diversity, dissidence and the voice of the people, from where and how writers will arise who are world class because they are a school by themselves. I do not know. To know them, to have known them, has made, at least for me, life worth living.
N. MANU CHAKRAVARTHY
ALMOST a decade before Edward Said’s Orientalism appeared, considerably altering the structure of literary studies, many departments of English in India had restructured their syllabus and reworked their tools of literary analysis. The expression ‘Post-Colonial Literary Studies’ had still to emerge at the stage. But it is widely accepted (many scholars who have written on the changing nature of literary studies in English in India have recorded it clearly) that the departments of English in India began to recognize that there was much more to a literary programme than the standard English (to mean British) literary curriculum which was strictly chronological and linear and featured authors and texts that were quite mediocre.
This was bound to happen as the departments of bhasha literatures had outstanding scholars who regularly produced works that teachers of English, not insiders to the bhasha traditions, found difficult to match. In the main they appeared derivative, clearly revealing that they were based on secondary sources. In retrospect, the simple point that the bhasha departments far excelled the departments of English became difficult to contest, notwithstanding the reputation English departments enjoyed all over.
C.D. Narasimhaiah of the Department of English at the University of Mysore was primarily responsible for bringing about this change in Indian universities given the kind of influence he had at various levels. Probably, it was his gradual entry into Sanskrit poetics, aided by the Sanskrit scholars he interacted with for different reasons, which helped extend his range, freeing him from the notion of a great tradition that he had inherited from the formidable F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. (It is only fair to record that Leavis in his note in the last volume of Scrutiny observed that literatures from other parts of the world would lead to different ideas of literature in the decades to come).
CDN brought American, African, Australian, Canadian, Indian literatures, to name a few, into the English curriculum. Sanskrit poetics moved into the framework of literary criticism with Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Kuntaka, Sri Aurobindo, M. Hiriyanna and others, strongly contending with L.C. Knights, Wilson Knight, F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Cleanth Brooks and the other new critics. Consequently, new modes of reading literature began to acquire a cultural base that was no longer simply Anglo/Eurocentric. Much more could be written about this, but that would be a different story altogether, not quite necessary in the context this essay attempts to capture.
No account of U.R. Ananthamurthy as a teacher of English, a creative writer and socio-cultural critic, can afford to overlook the background sketched out at the beginning of this essay. Ananthamurthy throughout remained inextricably connected to his pedagogical edifice, and his creative and cultural roots that actually shaped his many intellectual reincarnations as a teacher. As a creative writer of the modernist phase of the Kannada literary tradition called the navya, Ananthamurthy brought into his creative processes a rare quality of creating dualities and paradoxes that, of course, drew from the contradictions of the complex Indian realities – without ever constructing binary opposites, or making simplistic choices while confronting irresolvable opposing positions. This is a major reason why Ananthamurthy throughout his life remained an alien, an outsider to his own immediate tradition, and an unacceptable entity to those who were utterly hostile to his intellectual and cultural ideas.
Ananthamurthy thus became whatever people wanted him to be, and resolved to see him as, going by their own reductionist ideologies. Samskara, URA’s first novel, continues to represent this particular location of his public being, implying that Ananthamurthy remained an outsider even as far as his particular literary tradition, the ‘navya’, went. The navya was not a unitary tradition – there were poets who borrowed heavily from the ancient past, the Vedic to be specific, and there were other writers who tried to uphold a secular, rational, modern outlook with an utter disregard for the Vedic past. It was only Ananthamurthy who almost singularly, freely and openly negotiated with both without either privileging any or creating a hierarchy between them.
Ananthamurthy’s works display a very delicate and refined openness that has always been derided as ‘status quoist’, ‘reactionary’ by so-called liberals and considered to be ‘anti-tradition’, ‘anti-Brahmin’, ‘anti-Hindu’ by self-styled traditionalists. Ananthamurthy courageously carried all these burdens till the very end without ever being pressurized into sacrificing his essential creative vision for politically correct positions. He internalized all these with wisdom, realizing that they stemmed from the polarities generated by a heavily casteist social order and the inequalities of an economic system which was a part of the capitalist world that India was gradually sliding towards.
Even when attacked by his contemporaries from the literary world, Ananthamurthy refused to accept fossilized notions of India as an area with only an ‘oppressive Brahminical past’ to deal with, or simplistic ideas of egalitarianism that the modern world seemed to promise to many. Both were for him untenable propositions, and not for a moment did he endorse either tradition or modernity as unproblematic sites that one could reside in comfortably.
Ananthamurthy truly situated himself in the tradition of Tagore and Gandhi as far as ideas of tradition and modernity were concerned, and most certainly with regard to India’s relationship with the West. The ambiguous quality that Ananthamurthy consistently displayed distanced him from both the right and the left even as his middle position too was not in alignment with centrists, who more often than not were vague and amorphous in their choices and attitudes. This is why Ananthamurthy does not fit into any prior category of description for he was constantly shifting positions, restructuring his ideas and altering his beliefs. As a thinker, he was constantly confronting his own perceptions and positions, and even the term ‘critical insider’ does not adequately capture the transformations he underwent, for he always embraced an ‘insider-outsider’ position.
With a doctorate from Birmingham, Ananthamurthy’s return to India and entry into the academic world as an English teacher marks another crucial encounter of his life that became a part of his creative and critical endeavours until the end. I must add that all the details about Ananthamurthy’s intellectual and creative life fully reflect the tensions and conflicts of the academic and social realities of modern India. In that sense, Ananthamurthy’s journey symbolizes the very complex journey modern India has made, especially during recent times.
I entered the Department of English at Mysore in the mid ’70s as a student and, like many others, was stunned by the intellectual brilliance of Ananthamurthy. The sweep and range of his mind was overwhelming, leading me to believe that his mind was always ‘on fire’. I also came face to face with the solid presence of CDN, Ananthamurthy’s teacher in the ’50s, and his heavy articulation of the value and significance of the Indian tradition in spite of his deep indebtedness to English as a language and culture that he never disowned. Sanskrit poetics and western literary criticism were complementary for CDN, who moved easily from one to the other.
I have all along been a close witness to Ananthamurthy’s profound struggles with Sanskrit poetics and western literary criticism, even though he was deeply influenced by both. Ananthamurthy’s basic Kannada sensibility worked subtly to prevent him from establishing a cosy relationship with Sanskrit and English. While CDN could be content with Dhvanyaloka, Vakrokti Jeevitam and The Common Pursuit and New Bearings in English Poetry, Ananthamurthy wrestled with all of them for two primary reasons. First, with all his socialist concerns and immediate experiences with the working class children of England, he felt impelled to further the frontiers of literary studies by introducing genuine socialist criticism into the curriculum. Thus he carried the texts of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Georg Lukács that unsettled many canonical texts into the classroom. Engagement with ideological issues expanded ideas of literature, literary value and universality that for a long period were defined and shaped by middle class liberal notions. The liberal humanist views gradually made way for genuine socialist views, forcing a revaluation of commonly accepted literary values.
The purists of the English literary world were unable to accept these rather sweeping changes, for their belief in pure literary values was being questioned, if not entirely dismissed. They also felt that ideological issues polluted the ‘sacred’ reading of literature that was above and beyond temporal concerns. With Marx in the background, Ananthamurthy created strong ripples in the calm and placid lake of the liberals, especially by introducing literary works that broke the high walls carefully nurtured and sustained by liberal intellectuals and critics. Many of us were gradually introduced to the ideological positions of both the classical Marxists and the views of the new left with a special place given to the Frankfurt School, especially the works of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas. Ananthamurthy had launched a frontal attack on the conservative nature of the liberal humanists though he never, ever, endorsed the ‘vulgar Marxists’ who were reductionists.
Ananthamurthy never became a leftist in the conventional sense. He was a left-winger for the conservatives and a reformist for the extreme left. It is a fact that both camps clearly misinterpreted and distorted his views on literature and cultural politics. Ananthamurthy’s radical ideas in the Department of English at Manasa Gangotri did not go down well with people like CDN, who still held onto the ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendental’, ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ dimensions of literature. For them, any engagement with quotidian elements and the ephemeral nature of history ruined the eternal principles of literature. Ananthamurthy’s alienness in the Department of English originated from this specific centre of confrontation with the literary traditionalists who did not modify their ideas about pure, unmediated experiences of literature.
Second, Ananthamurthy had to come to terms with, yet again, people like CDN who, even as they opened up to Sanskrit poetics, could not visualize the Department of English accommodating Kannada literature, or the other bhasha literatures for that matter, as part of the great tradition. CDN, in particular, saw the relationship between bhasha literatures and English as counterproductive in intellectual terms. I must, however, add that CDN was never anti-Kannada or anti-bhasha in any sense. But he was too fixated with an idea of Englishness that prevented him from seeing bhasha literatures as vital to the future of English Studies in Indian universities. However, Ananthamurthy, with his heavy baggage of Pampa, Kumaravyasa, the Vachanakaras, Kabir, Vaikom Basheer, Fakir Mohan Senapathy, the Sangam poets and several others from the various Indian bhashas, bombarded the English and Sanskritic traditions, leaving those who refused to accept his postulates speechless. In a very real sense those who were familiar only with English were intellectually impoverished, a fact that became obvious as Ananthamurthy explicated his views in detail.
Ananthamurthy challenged Sanskrit poetics and the Anglo-Saxon critical tradition by shifting attention to the riches of the bhasha literary traditions and poetics, notably without regarding the Sanskrit and western traditions as inimical to the bhasha traditions. There was certainly no parochialism at work in Ananthamurthy’s arguments; he was only trying to undermine the unverified claims of universal supremacy of both the West in relation to the non-West, and Sanskrit as regards bhasha traditions. As a Kannada writer and an English teacher, Ananthamurthy felt intellectually obliged to foreground the value and worth of all traditions in a non-hierarchical manner. Further, Ananthamurthy created a dense and richly complex sense of tradition and culture by treating the multifarious oral traditions as equally important and significant as the written ones. It was a great attempt to demolish all kinds of hierarchies in the academic world, and in a cultural sense, a struggle to highlight the fact that all civilizations and cultures flourished in states of plurality and heterogeneity. Moreover, any effort to homogenize, standardize and hierarchize them was sure to lead to cultural fascism.
The Department of English at Manasa Gangotri was virtually a profound intellectual battlefield with CDN and U.R. Ananthamurthy as the commanders of two opposing armies that fought each other only to enhance their respective scholarship and sensibilities. At this juncture one cannot forget the quiet, sophisticated scholarship of B. Damodar Rao, perhaps the only one in the department whom Ananthamurthy often turned to, seek clarifications about his intellectual formulations. From the ’70s to the mid-’80s, I was a direct and immediate witness to these battles that were totally untouched by malice, bitterness and animosity. CDN’s Englishness and Sanskritic leanings had to equip themselves more to meet the bhasha orientations of Ananthamurthy, who in every argument established the fact that Kannada and other Indian bhashas drew quite seriously from Sanskrit and English without any hesitation, but devoid of any inferiority complex or sense of being secondary. Ananthamurthy wanted this to be acknowledged at a serious intellectual level without a patronizing or condescending attitude.
In the larger socio-cultural context, Ananthamurthy’s formulations appeared bizarre, grotesque and anachronistic to conservatives, progressives, secularists and rationalists alike. He appeared to be a thinker, not sure of the implications of what he stated. There were also groups that believed he was a public figure who generated controversy for its own sake. The depth of Ananthamurthy’s polemics was never realized in a serious way; almost all the controversies surrounding him were backed neither by scholarship nor social imagination. I would not regard them as anything different from slander and gossip. To state it differently, the debates Ananthamurthy introduced were not scaffolded by a proper intellectual contextualization. However, there were some debates he initiated which even now are central to the political and cultural discourse in Karnataka. Unfortunately, they often get reduced to street comments about his integrity and character.
Let me turn to one of his most challenging statements regarding the caste system in India. Contesting the stereotype that the destiny of the lower castes rested in their choice to gain upward mobility by Sanskritising or Brahminising themselves, Ananthamurthy argued that there was enormous energy and vitality in the lower castes to create spaces of autonomy and free imagination within their own cosmos. He argued that the caste system not only did not annihilate the lower castes but, paradoxically enough, also opened up spaces of contestations and protest and empowered the lower castes to live with dignity and self-respect.
Even while so arguing, Ananthamurthy was acutely conscious of the fact that there was enormous suffering and misery and injustice as far as the living realities of the lower castes were concerned, especially at the socio-cultural and political levels. But the truth of the Indian society was that its oppressive reality could never destroy the inner cosmos of the lower castes. Many progressive radicals saw Ananthamurthy’s nuanced philosophical position as a shameless defence of the barbaric caste system. In contrast, one of the finest intellectuals of Karnataka in the ’80s, D.R. Nagaraj, furthered Ananthamurthy’s views at many other levels, and always acknowledged a debt to him for adding intellectual sophistication to his earlier raw radical views on the caste system.
Ananthamurthy extended his views on the caste system to the issue of language, arguing that the Indian bhashas had to be saved from the onslaught of English that was always a language of the elites. His incisive view was that English as a vehicle of knowledge and culture was very different from what the economic and political centres had converted it into by appropriating and incorporating it into their structures of power and authority. In fact, Ananthamurthy was correlating the English of the rich and powerful with the sweeping power of the corporate world that converted languages and cultures into mere information systems. The instrumentalist use of language and culture was what Ananthamurthy wanted India and other parts of the so-called third world to resist and overcome.
Third, Ananthamurthy saw the future of Third World societies in the collective wisdom of communities and societies and not in the reality of the nation state. Like Tagore and Gandhi, Ananthamurthy too, especially in his last years, conflated nationalism (and the nation state) with injustice and inequality that constituted the base of capitalism that could not be erased easily. It was in the ’70s that he prepared us to understand the power of capital, especially its destructive power, as far as the Third World context was concerned by drawing from the writings of Ivan Illich. It was also meant to be an extension of Marxist thought that he wanted us to recognize as inadequate and limited in several ways.
Ananthamurthy also introduced the vision of genuine religious cosmology into his arguments, stating emphatically that a true religious vision should never be dismissed as fanaticism and that even in the modern world the value of religion can never be undermined. Ananthamurthy believed that one had to read the Bible and the Koran as great religious texts with an evolved understanding of the values of justice, equality and peace. During a session with his research students, he prophesized that Muslims all over the world would inevitably be pushed towards violence if they continued to be manipulated by the two superpowers (Soviet Russia and the United States of America). In the Indian context, he maintained that the Hindu right wing would surely do the same. Ananthamurthy was unequivocal that it would be disastrous for all religious communities in particular, and Third World countries in general, to not wake up to the monstrous power of religious nationalism and global capitalism. Globalization, nationalism and totalitarianism were for Ananthamurthy one single indivisible unit and it would be a grievous mistake to treat them as separate entities.
Ananthamurthy’s last work, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj in Kannada, bears full testimony to his deep allegiance to Tagore, Gandhi and other visionaries who clearly saw the evils of capitalism and nationalism, both of which paraded ideas of unbridled progress, development and growth with contempt and disregard for values of justice and equality. Ananthamurthy was always on the wrong side of mainstream history – as a teacher, a creative writer and a cultural critic – fully conscious of the risk he was taking while articulating his views on caste, tradition, modernity and nationalism. That deep inside his being he remained an ‘insider-outsider’ to all public issues, underlines his significance for our times.
Suragi: a tale of lingering fragrance
H.S. RAGHAVENDRA RAO
IN Kannada, Suragi is the name of a quaint and delicate flower which retains its fragrance even after it has wilted. It is significant that U.R. Ananthamurthy (URA) chose this title for his autobiography published in 2012. The book, created in collaboration with J.N. Tejashree, a sensitive poet and a serious student of literature, is an interesting experiment in the genre.
Suragi contains ten chapters starting from the reminiscences of a sensitive young boy from the hilly regions of Karnataka. The autobiography apparently conforms to the conventional pattern of chronological narration. Different facets of his life are delineated in different narrative modes. But the chronological narration is frequently deserted because of the mercurial memory of URA that moves in different directions all at once and the strategies adopted by Tejashree, the narrator-collaborator. These temporal flights have however resulted in a gripping narrative.
Suragi is a creative combination of personal reminiscences and a subjective documentation of the writer’s own times. This is one reason why this work assumes cultural significance. Very few artists get the opportunity of being active participants in moulding the contemporary cultural scenario like URA. Of course, being a public intellectual was a deliberate choice that he made, particularly during the later part of his life. This book is free of self-righteousness even though attempts of self-justification are occasionally present. Overall, it reflects a healthy combination of self-search and self-criticism. This review makes a few observations in capsule form in order to avoid repetition.
Suragi is significant because it deals with issues that are of importance for India. It delineates the confrontations of a creative individual with his personal angst and the problems faced by an emerging modern writer in post-Independence India. It is a unique experiment even in terms of its structure – a non-linear collage of narrative modules contributed by URA and the explicatory remarks provided by Tejashree. It does not become overtly subjective or academically argumentative, the juxtaposition of lyrical and introspective passages lending it a particular charm. While representing the complexities of a regional culture very competently, the problems that it addresses have broader significance.
This book is structured in two seamlessly interconnected layers of narrative. The first layer consists of events and experiences from across a long and multifaceted life. The second is a documentation of the angst and aspirations of the inner being. By and large, the selection and the narrative modes of the first layer are controlled by the second. The narration becomes intense and passionate when these two narratives coalesce. Otherwise, it meanders into a prosaic presentation.
A desire to fulfil one’s cultural responsibilities and a need to be true to one’s inner compulsions constitute yet another tension in the book. This comes out when URA talks about friends and acquaintances like K.V. Subbanna, Shanthaveri Gopala Gowda, Rajeev Taranath, P. Lankesh, George Fernandes and many others. For instance, a comparative analysis of his remarks on Gopala Gowda in this book and the fictionalized account of the same person in his novel Avasthe could provide many valuable insights into this issue. Suragi does not become vulgar or scandalous at any point, because the author is aware of the fact that others do not get an opportunity to present their point of view. URA seems to feel that personal and intimate details should not find place in an autobiography, unless they have public significance as well. This awareness saves Suragi from salacious details and unnecessary controversies. The public importance of a private moment is decided in many ways. For URA, it is essentially an act of merging experience with philosophical analysis. For instance, he composed a short rhythmic utterance linking a maid servant Abbakka with a sparrow (Gubbakka in Kannada). URA describes this event and makes use of it to discuss the relation between rhyme and poetry. This book contains quite a few moments of this kind followed by appropriate commentaries.
URA found ample opportunity to visit and live in different parts of India and abroad. Most Kannada writers did not have such exposure. URA has made use of such experiences in his writings. Suragi contains a few chapters devoted to his sojourns in England and Kerala. He went to England in 1964, at the age of thirty two, and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Birmingham. Details about his experiential and intellectual life in England offer a number of brilliant insights. His observations are both self-assertive and self-critical depending on the context. They do not come across as experiences of a single individual. Rather they acquire universal dimensions applicable to lay persons coming from an upper caste, lower middle class background. The clash of cultures and its effect on individual behaviour is brought out effectively. For instance, URA gets an opportunity to teach a group of students from various ethnic and class backgrounds. At first, he was shocked by their behaviour and did not know how to handle the unfamiliar situation. Gradually he came to terms with the students as well as his colleagues.
Sensitive readers of his stories are familiar with the shapes acquired by these experiences in an artistic rendering. But Suragi reveals many facets of such life that are not present in his creative work. Some of them are personal while others are possibly too intellectually oriented to be transformed into a story. It is interesting to note that URA published a longish story written during this period a few months before his death. The decisions about what to publish were probably a result of his perceptions about these genres.
The portrayal of his childhood and adolescence spent in Karnataka are authentic and evocative. But Suragi has quite a few problems in the depiction of his life between the ages of thirty and eighty. URA’s life during this period has become an integral part of the cultural-social history of Karnataka. Here the narrative reminds one of tightrope walking. This was a period of introspection, self-criticism and self-justification for artists from the Brahmin community. It was an ordeal by fire. It was very difficult to differentiate between masks and faces in general. Quite often literary movements and social movements were at loggerheads with one another.
For instance, the modernist literary movement was at its peak when the backward caste movement was gathering momentum during the regime of Devaraj Urs. The modernist movement contained germs of traditionalism and regionalism. Ideas inspired by Lohia on the one hand and existentialist thinkers such as Sartre and Camus on the other created rifts and resulted in different paths of evolution. It was difficult to distinguish between genuine opinions and politically correct postures during that period. It was very challenging to strike a balance between social justice and secularism.
URA was at the receiving end of stringent criticism for a long time for both his ideas as well as actions. He had to defend himself every now and then. In such situations writing often becomes an exercise in self-justification. This happens more frequently if others do not rush to your support and if those who do are accused of belonging to your coterie. Readers arrive at their conclusions by reading the accounts rendered by other participants of the events. These conclusions are again based on their personal bias. Who knows the truth and who is bothered about knowing it? Ultimately, one writes about oneself even when writing about others. In that sense all writing is self-revelatory. Of course, the converse of this statement is also true. We realize our true selves only in relationship with others. That is why one should not look for someone else’s biography in works like Suragi.
Autobiographies have the advantages of hindsight. Earlier opinions and actions are replaced by those that mirror the contemporary, often at considerable variance from those of the past. This is true of political events, social movements and even interpersonal relationships. For instance, both URA and Lankesh took more than two decades to understand that Congress politics had many positive aspects which were totally absent in the political practices of either the Janata Dal or Jan Sangh. In itself there is nothing wrong in such reappraisal. But then, they started announcing it from the rooftops as messiahs. There are quite a few such ‘being wise after the event’ instances in Suragi. It is beyond doubt that many events of this period are written with lots of hesitation and an adequate dose of cleverness. In reality, all autobiographies (Atma Kathaanaka) are half-narrated tales (Ardha Kathaanaka). The un-narrated half is definitely not unimportant.
The chapter titled, ‘The Ups and Downs of Creativity’ is one of the seminal parts of this book. URA was adept in making use of his creativity in many areas such as journalism, politics, oratory and public life. Consequently, he kept himself active even while going through troughs of literary creativity. He always thought that living itself was a creative act. This section contains many valuable insights about his creative processes as also the act of creation in general. However, this chapter could have been more elaborate. He could have attempted to delineate an ‘author specific’ poetics. Bendre, one of our eminent poets, has done it wonderfully. URA was one of the few modernist writers who went beyond the confines of that movement. It would be very interesting to learn whether this transcending was confined to his world view or whether it also permeated into his concept of literature. I have a feeling that he was more creatively experimental in his poetry rather than in his fiction. It is difficult to find radical departures in the evolution of form in his fiction. He used poetry to formulate and state his intellectual and metaphysical positions. Usually, he accomplished this through anecdotes and metaphors. He was fond of lyrical discourses even in his fiction. But his later poetry was less lyrical and made use of the prose style. Suragi could have thrown more light on issues like this.
The ‘Inner Life’ was more important than the ‘Public Life’ for URA throughout his life. This truth is made very clear in Suragi also. But a disproportionate desire for media publicity and an uncontrollable urge to express his opinion on all topics gained ascendency throughout his life. The subtle and nuanced realities of his inner self have not been expressed in detail anywhere in this book. Even those that have found vent are not sufficiently emphasized. He probably felt that the ‘personal’ which does not merge with the ‘social’ would not have much significance with the passage of time. He was not particularly fond of perceiving and presenting truth through other fictional characters during his last few years. That is why he did not venture into fiction during this period. Curiously though, he made cursory attempts of this kind in the poems that he translated.
URA’s intellectual writing too suffers from a relative absence of musings about his inner life. He is more interested in documenting his ideas about social, political and cultural issues. He wrote more about public life than private dilemmas. Probably, since his achievements in various walks of life are not recorded properly by his contemporaries, it became necessary for Suragi to delineate such details. For instance, the yeoman work turned out by him in Kerala as the vice chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University and its philosophical background are documented here in detail. But unfortunately, in this context it becomes self-congratulatory. This is a real impasse. Similarly, he is forced to explain and substantiate and justify many of his external actions and inner turmoil. This is also due to the fact that most people who surrounded him were there to feather their nests. Actually, I have a feeling that URA learnt more from his enemies and dissenters than his friends and admirers. He had an innate ability to absorb criticism, mull over and use them for his growth.
A person who believes that truth is linear, sticks to it and acts upon it faces fewer problems. Even those who know the plurality of truth and choose to stay mum and inactive escape serious predicaments. The real conflicts begin when one is aware of the pluralities of a situation and still want to be an activist. URA was one such person. This reality created problems for him in action as well as speech. In addition, like many of us, he too was fond of success and praise. This makes us incapable of hurting others by being ruthlessly objective. Numerous placatory sentences are found in Suragi.
I have learnt several lessons from this book. The first is about the nature of cruelty that could be present in leftist regimes also. Of course, I am fully aware of the fact that capitalist democracies and dictatorships too harbour cruelty which is ten times more intense. The mockery of democracy that prevails in India and the USA is no solution whatsoever. But communism created dreams of liberation and then gagged all voices of protest. URA was haunted by these feelings throughout his life. His liking for the tenets of Marxism did not make him change his disbelief in leftist regimes. Suragi makes it abundantly clear.
Second, many parts of Suragi stress the necessity of re-examining the concept of morality and ethics. Being untrue to one’s own self can also be immoral. Even an ‘ultra-moralist’ like Gandhi was exploitative in many of his practices. There was an autocratic lack of understanding of others in his interpersonal dealings. Ends were quite often more important than means for Gandhi. URA is very clear about this in Suragi as well as his other writings. Third, Suragi tells a number of unpalatable truths in a muted and detached manner. Most of them are valid both generally and contextually. He is never hesitant about mentioning small defects in himself and others including his own family. Even his mother and wife are not spared from this treatment. Such comments are, however, without hatred or contempt.
A few words about the structuring and narration of this book. This is a non-linear and complex work in spite of its chronological narration. Suragi is the fruit of a meaningful collaboration of two creative minds. URA moves in various paths, led by his memories as the mood strikes. Both Tejashree and he have adapted the method of expanding and explaining some chapters and incidents in detail and truncating certain other phases, thereby, signalling the relative importance of things. Some passages are very lyrical and charged with emotion; some others are linear and prosaic. They are retained only because of logical compulsions. Actually these tonal variations have nothing to do with the stylistic competence of the narrators. The method of juxtaposing the current narrations with selections from the diaries written long ago has helped in tracing URAs evolution. They also help the reader in viewing the same incident from two different perspectives separated in time.
A few observations about the mode in which this book took shape are necessary. It is not a straightforward narration written by the protagonist. It is not even a continuous text dictated by the protagonist to a passive scribe. It is a jungle of memories, dreams, pages culled from diaries, selections from creative and not so creative writings, electronically recorded material and telephonic conversations. It is easy to lose one’s way in this kind of abundance. Tejashree has undertaken this adventure with total commitment and succeeded eminently.
One faces a number of problems while converting a ‘spoken text’ into a ‘written narrative’. A verbatim presentation of hundreds of pages of spoken material would have been monotonous. It is an achievement of the narrator that Suragi has retained the nuances and subtleties of a written text. Occasionally she has helped URA delve deep into his memories by asking appropriate questions. She says that the inner core of the book belongs to URA and that the external format is an outcome of their combined labour. This is indeed true, and she deserves to be complimented for her labour of love and diligence. URA has given us the fruits of his probe into the mysteries of life and society. It is but natural that many probes end without resolution and many truths are too bitter to admit.
Suragi is undoubtedly one of the better autobiographies in Kannada. Many of its facets are equally relevant in a pan-Indian context. One looks forward to a competent translation of this book into English and other Indian languages.
A writer’s last testament
Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is a slender work which in a sombre meditative tone and style, rich in metaphorical resonance, provides a disturbing reflection on a conjuncture of history that the writer Ananthamurthy finds menacing. The writing is strikingly different from the energetic, persuasive, urbane but argumentative style URA is known for. Instead, he seems to be experimenting with a bricolage of ideas and images, collating them for himself and the reader to meditate and discover the threads which weave them together. The bitter conjuncture of history for URA is the rise of Narendra Modi to power, which ‘perhaps symbolizes the end of the Gandhian era and the victory of Savarkar’ (p. 32). Though unsure whether the victory is temporary, he is convinced that it is Savarkar’s victory.
Though URA eschews an elaborate historical or ideological analysis, he is addressing the issue of Hindu nationalism which Savarkar conceptualized by creating the neologism Hindutva.1 His version of Hindutva as nationalism constructed on the modular European form characterized by one territory, one culture, one race and one language was found attractive by the native Indian elite who like Savarkar were uneasy about conflating Hindu religion with Hindu nationalism. After all Savarkar walks a long mile towards (colonial) modernity by clarifying that though a major constituent, Hindu religion is emphatically not the same as Hindu nationalism. His insistence is that anyone who experiences ‘Sindhustan’ or ‘Hindustan’ as both fatherland and holy land and is a descendant of the Vedic fathers and thus belongs to the race which also enjoyed the extraordinary historical luck of inhabiting a clearly bound territory is a follower of (and believer in) Hindutva.2
In an interesting section he argues that whether he is an agnostic, atheist or non-Vedic does not matter; nor does his belonging to a tribe or an untouchable caste matter. But for the highly rhetorical, emotional style of Savarkar, frequently breaking into poetry and more importantly, using a substratum of myths, images and tropes which reveal how his sensibility is grounded in the mainstream Hindu religious framework, one would think he was conceptualizing Hindu nationalism as a secular, modern space. This aspect must have greatly appealed to the ‘Young India’ group of revolutionaries in England and other European countries who believed in the legitimacy of violence in the nationalist struggle.
The insight that URA probably shares with other commentators on the Modi phenomenon is that today’s young India of techies, NRI’s, urban youth and the youth in small towns and cities also sees Modi’s Hindu nationalism as modern. Narendra Modi also avoids the non-modern categories of Vedic religion, caste supremacy, tradition and uses the idiom of development and efficient management. URA sees, correctly again, the convergence of nationalism (in its modern avatar), development (as the culmination of the anthropocentric, consumerist and ecologically destructive aspect of western civilization which Gandhi critiqued so powerfully in Hind Swaraj) and a political culture antithetical to democratic, liberal traditions in Modi’s rise to power.
Though the figure of Modi recurs through the text, URA uses him as a metaphor for the conjuncture of tendencies which have the potential to disrupt and dislocate Gandhi’s utopian but radical Hind Swaraj. It is a brilliant stroke to juxtapose Hindutva and Hind Swaraj – two texts, two approaches to India and two forms of politics which are for URA irreconcilable binary opposites. It is also a masterly move to posit Savarkar’s Hindutva in opposition to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj deliberately ignoring the more openly fascist writings of Golwalkar and others. It is not this version of the right wing ideology which Narendra Modi now represents, but the far more powerful, persuasive and contemporary version of the same.
A very interesting aspect of Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is the manner in which URA shifts the grounds of his arguments from the political to the ethical. The text, after collating seemingly disparate statements about the Modi phenomenon, transforms itself into a deep meditation on evil. This section begins with a repertory/checklist of the distinctive evils of our times. ‘In our times evil is the mines, the dams, the electricity plants, hundreds of smart cities, shadeless roads widened by felling trees, rivers which have lost direction and now serve to wash the toilets of five star hotels, and the shorn, bald hills once the temples of the tribal people, markets where no sparrows come and green trees on which no birds sit’ (p. 15).
In the ethical perspective I mentioned, URA describes this evil as a product of man’s hubris which threatens human existence. It is a hubris based on the misconception of the world of nature as an endless, permanent cornucopia satisfying man’s endless greed (p. 22). This greed now takes the form of corporate greed and destructive developmental desires. In this analysis of the present evils, it is the Gandhian register which URA employs. Echoing the harsh critique of machinery and modern civilization of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, he writes about the overarching category of ‘development’ which ‘makes the earth anaemic, the sky a smoke ridden roof through which even the sun cannot peep and poisons the rivers’ (p. 16).
The Gandhian register is more audible in URA’s repeated reference to development as the extreme, unhealthy state of middle class greed which in turn is one of the forms which man’s hubris takes. He describes globalization as a modern form of ‘hunting by corporate lords’ which has already destroyed self-reflexivity and introspection. It is a condition of the sheer inability to see evil as evil.
A longish section of the work deals with two well known texts about evil. One is the Book of John which URA analyzes as representative of the Christian exploration of the nature, necessity and the role of evil as well as its problematic relationship with the will of God. The other text is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with the focus on Raskolnikov’s febrile obsession with Napoleon and the notion of the superman. In URA’s reading of the novel, Raskolnikov’s struggles to escape from his intellectual hubris and move towards the Christian understanding of evil, though ‘he refuses to bend’ (p. 30).
Though I am somewhat unsure whether this meditation on evil around the two texts effectively relates to the analysis of Savarkar and Modi, URA’s intention is clearly visible. He is exploring two antithetical states of mind – the Gandhian and the one associated with Savarkar. The Gandhian frame eschews the loud, passionate rhetoric of Savarkar and speaks in an intimate dialogic manner, dreams of an India, universal but local, decentralized in the form of the panchayat. The Savarkarite ‘rejects the India of many religions and languages and limits it to only those who see it as punyabhumi – holy land (p. 58).
There is a long section in the work which offers a precise summary and commentary on Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? The section also introduces the background to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, including Savarkar and Young India revolutionaries in England whom Gandhi met and who the editor of Hind Swaraj mentions without naming them. As Anthony Parel points out, Savarkar is one of the interlocutors of Gandhi’s work. This may not be so obvious because in the work, the Reader who begins as a resolute supporter of Young India very quickly gets persuaded by the Editor so that thereafter the Editor Gandhi seems to turn away from the interlocutor. His strategy seems to be of demolishing Savarkar’s Hindutva by ignoring it.
The act of ignoring is deliberate and consciously planned. Gandhi’s great insight was to see with clairvoyance that the edifice of Savarkar’s Hindu nationalism stood on the acceptance of modernity and the modular form of European nationalism. It was a classic case of the colonized internalizing the discourses of the colonizer. I have not read Savarkar’s work in the Marathi original, but clearly the English translation unselfconsciously transposes ‘nation’ and ‘church’ frequently, revealing the discursive complicity of Savarkar’s writing with the colonial discourses. It is this complicity which Gandhi attacks as the true enemy of Swaraj.
In the following famous passage Gandhi is certainly speaking to the invisible interlocutor: ‘In effect it means this – that we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English, and, when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. That is not the Swaraj that I want.’3
Though it would be stretching it too far to imagine ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Englistan’ as Gandhi’s play on ‘Sindhustan’ and ‘Hindustan’ in Savarkar’s work, the cutting edge remark is intended for Savarkar’s nationalism. Gandhi rightly understood that despite Savarkar’s waxing lyrical over Sindhustan, his conceptualization of nationalism was derivative of the Euro-centric model. Gandhi’s insight has been proved right and elaborated by modern scholarship which has traced continuities between ‘the one language, one culture and one nation’ description by Herder, Shiller and others and the Hindu nationalist duplication of the same construction.
Another striking derivative category used by Savarkar is ‘race’ – an essentialist category belonging to the colonial production of knowledge which, for long, enjoyed the status of a scientifically valid category. Savarkar, by conflating race and nation attributes a primordial identity status to nationalism because it is race which almost automatically ensures your nationalism whereas a reverential altitude towards fatherland and holy land needs to be cultivated.
In complete contrast to the derivative Eurocentric idea of nationalism, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj marginalizes the term itself. This is so because Gandhi shifts the grounds of argument by foregrounding the category ‘civilization’. Imperial England is an example of ‘modern’ civilization (western civilization) and for Indians to enshrine the Englishman in the heart would mean exchanging an aggressive but failed civilization for an ancient civilization which can sustain both the individual and the world.4 In Hind Swaraj India is not a nation; it is a civilization in which many languages and religions have coexisted. For Gandhi who liked to describe himself as a sanatani Hindu, no religion including Hindu religion, was perfect. While Savarkar makes much of the unique geographical features of Hindustan, Gandhi is in fact the modern individual negotiating with images of urban squalor, machinery, the railways and the law courts. Savarkar’s pastoral lyricism about Hindustan contrasts with Gandhi’s anti-urban, anti-industrial (almost Luddite) realism. Gandhi would sit well in the company of Blake, Wordsworth, William Morris and John Ruskin, in fact with many representatives of the anti-West or non-West in the western tradition. Savarkar the fiery nationalist is in the company of the colonizing West. Ananthamurthy dwells on this paradox.
Another perspective from which Gandhi and Savarkar are anlayzed in the work is related to their contrasting views regarding the state. URA argues that Gandhi’s thinking was shaped by two of his gurus who, philosophically speaking, were anarchists – Tolstoy and Thoreau. Like them Gandhi also distrusted an interventionist state. His conception of the village as the little, independent republic could exist and survive only if the state was minimalist and non-interventionist. If Marx saw the withering away of the state as an inevitable result of the dialectic of history, Gandhi thought of its withering away as an ethical imperative. In this he was absolutely alone because everyone else, including his heir Nehru, wanted a strong, centralized state albeit to achieve material progress and even to realise the socialist vision of equality.
URA’s work has interesting sections on Tagore and his novel Gora (which URA described on many occasions as the archetypal Indian novel). In contrast to Gandhi’s rejection of a strong state, Savarkar conceptualized a strong Hindu nation, using an imagination fully tinted by the hyper-masculinist notions which were also the mainstay of imperialism. This is hardly surprising given the fact that Indian right wing ideologues were admirers of the powerful fascist states, both Nazi Germany and paradoxically, Israel. URA quotes at length from Nathuram Godse’s defence to demonstrate the fury with which the likes of Godse reacted to Gandhi’s ‘weak nationalism’ and pacifism.
URA analyzes the dichotomy between a powerful state and anarchy by using his notions of ‘The Fear of the King’ and the ‘Fear of King’s Absence’. (URA had used the set of terms effectively in his earlier writings). He argues that the Savarkarite vision of nationalism inevitably gravitates towards a strong centralized state. In his subtle analysis, the notion of Hindutva reveals a masked repugnance towards heterogeneity and pluralism – two ineradicable features of Indian society. Though Savarkar in his Hindutva says emphatically that the religion of the majority has no privileged position and is willing to accord an equal status to the minor religions, he disqualifies Islam and Christianity from being part of Hindutva because they worship a holy land different from the fatherland. Gandhi, as mentioned earlier, hardly ever speaks of the nation. He is therefore free from any attempt to exclude any religion from Indian civilization.
Even while admitting that Savarkar’s concept of nationalism had little of the violence and cruelty of the fascist and Nazi models, URA argues that it was very vulnerable to such possibilities because of its consent to a strong state. There is every possibility that the present political trend in India is to create a coercive state which can be used to ‘purge’ the minorities and give away to global capital the resources which belong to the tribals and peasants. This is the basis of URA’s apprehension about Narendra Modi’s rise to power. The fear now is of the presence of the king, not of his absence.
Hindutva or Hind Swaraj reads like the last testament of a writer who was an iconic and visible public intellectual. URA explains to the readers that the work is ‘a response to the optimism which seems to have arisen in the media and the people after the election of Narendra Modi by a majority and my own misgivings’ (p. 1).
This opening sentence may mislead the hasty reader to conclude that the work is the response of a writer hounded by right wing supporters even in his condition of terminal illness for saying that he would not want to live under Modi’s regime. Nothing could be farther from the truth of the text. The finest parts of the text are about what man has discovered in his labour, in the learning and use of skills to live with nature. I wish URA had written far more elaborately about this. In his myriad and apparently endless search for possibilities of a truly non-western, non-orientalist knowledge and experience, he tried in his later writings to seek them in ‘tradition’. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in concretely realizing this in his fiction and ensuring that this tradition would not be the same old brahminical tradition.
In brief but important sections of this work (pp. 11-12), URA talks about the knowledge of the world acquired by man in the process of living and making things. This knowledge is acquired by the body-soul in the physical act of labour. Here URA introduces the contours of a knowledge which emerges from lived experience, or to be more precise in the act of labour. The reader may initially be puzzled by this section and wonder what it has to do with Hindutva. URA’s intention is that it has everything to do with it. It is in the separation of man from his labour, in the separation of knowledge from experience that a unique paradigm emerges. This relates to a world view which supports the utilitarian and exploitative approach to the world. This world view also supports a compartmentalization of the aesthetic, the political and the ethical. This world view is at the heart of nationalism. URA is emphatic in his indictment of all political parties which support such a fragmented world view. He points out that the healthy scepticism of nationalism by both Gandhi and Tagore was not endorsed by any Indian political party, including the Congress. URA is scathing in his criticism of the Congress which was complicit in the killing of the Sikhs in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
It is necessary to place this last work of URA in the context of the critique of nationalism and globalization which has emerged in Kannada, dominating debates in Kannada civil society and literary circles for nearly two decades. The long tradition of Kannada writers who are also activists and participants in people’s movements, has ensured an articulate resistance to communal forces. URA himself was a leading voice of protest against right wing ideologies and globalization, all along believing that neoliberal politics and communalism converge in unexpected ways and that a certain kind of nationalism can, in its modern form, emerge as a serious threat to democracy. URA’s last testament is therefore part of an ongoing dialogue in Kannada society. Sadly, U.R. Ananthamurthy will now only be a silent participant.
* Hindutva Athawa Hind Swaraj (Hindutva or Hind Swaraj) is the last book that U.R. Ananthamurthy wrote. Though it was written during illness and amidst continuous harassment by the right wing groups, he worked on several versions of the text and had finalized the work before he passed away. It has now been published by Abhinava, Bangalore, 2014.
** In the essay I have used my own translations of certain passages. The page numbers refer to those in the original Kannada book.
1. V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923) rpt. Bharatiya Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi. Also available on several internet sites.
3. Anthony Parel (ed.), Gandhi: ‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, Delhi, 2009, p. 27.
4. See Anthony Parel’s introduction, ibid.
A writer’s horizon
HIS earliest essays make obvious that URA saw himself as a Kannada writer whose literary predicament was akin to those of writers in other Indian languages. And that his concerns were civilizational.
Written in 1968, URA’s well known essay, ‘Consciousness and Material Reality’, contrasts Hegelian idealism with Marxist materialism and concludes that neither was fully adequate for understanding a writer’s task. Nor was ‘a golden mean’ between the two possible: both were distant from the truths of experience (anubhava).1 He also felt that existentialist concerns ought not to lose sight of the wider social relations even as he remained wary of the Indian philosophical attitudes that all too easily forgot the body.
When it is unnecessary to prove whether idealism or materialism is greater, participating in the social totality, being a free agent, and creating something entirely new become meaningful dilemmas for a writer. In an essay, ‘The Future of the Kannada Novel’, he wrote: ‘Only a writer who can grasp the changing external realities and the consequent struggles for the human mind in his times can create newness in the world of our novel.’2 It is this early conviction of his which explains, perhaps, why his writings are ever-wakeful to both the inner lives of individuals and the historical forces around them.
At a conference on modern Kannada literature in Mysore in the early 1970s, URA said: ‘It is common to raise the issue of western influence on modern Kannada writing. As a writer who has been influenced by the West, I wish to share a few of my ideas on this matter.’ He continued: ‘An individual influenced by English literature makes a moral decision when he decides to write in Kannada. The moral decision succeeds in some sense when he is able to make themes/subjects (vicara) outside of Kannada’s experience part of it.’3 He sought legitimacy for a mode of creativity that seamlessly wove in outside/foreign elements into a culture and enhanced the latter’s horizons of experience.
He saw this creative mode at work in how the 12th century vacana poets brought in the idea of bayalu (a void; a state of emptiness gained after liberation; a state that transcends being) from the Upanishads to speak intimately to their own social milieu. He went on to argue that Kannada had related in this manner with Sanskrit in the past; it had to similarly engage with English now.
This speech reveals URA’s existential struggle in understanding who can be a legitimate writer in Kannada. In engaging with this issue, he offers an open-ended view of tradition as an entity that can accommodate newness from sources outside it. He observed that tradition has always worked this way, that it has the potential for opening itself up to new experiences. And the sources of provocation can lie anywhere.
URA’s speech affirmed: ‘The magic of literature lies in its ability to make visible new facets of experience, to convey a distinct experience and gesture towards what might lie outside it, and to reach out to the inarticulate and formless spaces and rein them into the language of one’s experience.’4
The work of bringing in newness without making it seem like an outside influence requires not only consummate artistic skill and imagination, but depths of rooted experience alongside. In URA’s view, the rearrangement of a cultural universe that appears to emerge from spaces internal to it and feelsauthentic constitutes a legitimate creative act. Such an act of mediation in the process of authentic story making brings with it alternate notions of creative freedom and narrative accountability.
This method can be seen at work in his first novel, Samskara. Praneshacharya realizes that his a priori commitment to Madhva philosophy had meant that his intellectual quest during his student days was not a quest at all. Since URA has acknowledged his deep attraction to Jiddu Krishnamurti while he was at work on this novel, it is entirely conceivable that the latter’s caution that ‘if you seek, thou shall not find’ is behind Praneshacharya’s realization.5Similarly, Praneshacharya’s awakening to the pleasures of the body, which his single-minded devotion to God had made him indifferent towards, probably owed significantly to Ananthamurthy’s favourite novelist, D.H. Lawrence’s indictment of Christian morality as a life-denying force. And clearly, Lohia’s ideas on caste quality can be seen to have mattered for how Samskara represents relations between castes. Yet, it is significant that establishing these influences – while knowing that an influence works in mysterious ways – does not make the novel seem any less locally rooted or an inauthentic cultural experience. And that exercise indeed ceases to matter in the end.
URA’s method of managing the inside and the outside domains of tradition in his fiction is transposed to the plane of a civilizational encounter in his second novel, Bharathipura. Educated in England, Jagannatha, the novel’s protagonist, returns to India only to find himself deeply disturbed by the illiberal practices of caste and religious superstition. His various attempts at social reform misfire because his understanding of the problems and solutions is grounded in western rationalism and liberalism, which offer reason and the abstract ideals of freedom and equality from the outside. The novel can be seen to suggest that to be meaningful and effective, the task of social reform, whatever its normative sources, has to creatively work through a local cultural ethos.6
How creativity should work through tradition was for URA a constant and deep preoccupation. He offered a graphic analogy to illustrate this relationship: ‘Someone says, "This hookah has been in our family for nearly three hundred years". "Three hundred years! This same hookah!" "Yes, but when the bowl became very old and worn out, we changed it. And then, the pipe became too rough and rigid, so we changed it too. But we still have the same hookah".’7
URA struggled to convey how creative acts relate to tradition through a process of sadharanikarana (‘our own theory of universalization’) which makes someone feel that a work of art is both one’s own experience and that of a tradition.8
Global asymmetries of power and dominance in knowledge creation are very real as are chauvinistic sentiments at home. How an Indian language writer relates with the outside world is a complicated matter. Cautioning against both an inward looking revivalism and a mimicry of the West, URA suggests that a Kannada writer must view a drought in Bijapur, a literary experiment in France, space technology, and the poetry of Kabir and the vacanakaraswhich have the power to stir even the Indians dressed in western suits, as contemporary. S/he should make the language of the ancient poets, the speech of the villagers, and a new theoretical discussion from abroad, work as a language for the contemporary context.9 This literary imperative burdens the Indian writer with a great political responsibility to avoid the binary traps of East-West, tradition-modernity, and rural-urban while engaging the present.
Ananthamurthy’s stance on how the outside has to be negotiated with the inside can be seen at work in his non-fiction too. In a 2012 lecture on Dalit literature, he remarked: ‘It is possible for the Master to hit the servant as he doesn’t consider him human. The servant feels angry at being hit: "You and I are both human – how can you hit me?".’ URA felt comfortable about theorizing the violence of caste relations, using Hegel’s discussion of the master’s denial of recognition to the slave, which results in a mutually dissatisfying relationship between them.10
The political imperative of exposing the corrosive power of the outside assumed greater priority in his later concerns. Many of URA’s short stories acquire their power by not dissolving the boundaries of the inside and the outside and keeping them in a state of mutual provocation. In ‘Stallion of the Sun’, a modern intellectual runs into an old astrologer friend who opens up his mind to a new cosmology. In ‘Drought’, a left-secular IAS officer is continually amazed by the grounded intelligence of a local fixer. In stories like these and in numerous essays and speeches, URA expressed consistent concern about knowledges that were fast becoming marginal in the modern world.
His cautious stance towards the power of western knowledges had never really meant a total skepticism of the West. The ‘other West’, which included the voices of dissent towards modern civilization within the West, was deeply attractive for him. (He admired Simone Weil.) And great writing from any part of the world was always good to engage with. His was a capacious humanism.
His last two short stories, ‘Unfathomable Relations’ (2009) and ‘Pachhe Resort’ (2010), which confront the deep entanglements of Indian culture with the global economy, shift his concerns with how the inside engaged the outside to a different plane altogether. Structural evil, which was global in scope, is a primary concern in these stories.
‘Unfathomable Relations’ narrates a conversation between a French arms dealer, his philanthropic minded wife who wishes to support Indian art and medicine, an Indian Foreign Service officer and his wife, a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. The story soon clarifies that idealism has shriveled and compromise is everywhere. Indian art and Ayurveda are entangled with the armaments trade and surveillance networks Indeed, the story asks if violence was ever absent in civilization.
In ‘Pachhe Resort’, a mining businessmen seeks ways of promoting ‘clean mining’ with minimal environmental damage while his son is in the business of eco-tourism and spirituality workshops for corporate executives. Tradition seems effete in relation to their new economic priorities and their diminished sense of ethics.
Although URA always took a position on matters of social and political relevance, his engagements with the public became more frequent, and resonated more widely, in the final fifteen years of his life. In this phase, he wrote little by way of fiction, but contributed numerous op-eds to newspapers and magazines. (He also translated the poetry of Rilke, Wordsworth, Yeats and Brecht.) This set of writings, which have been collected in over a dozen volumes, allowed him to share his views with a large community of readers.
Taking a tip from the subtitle of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, if we wish to study ‘How URA Became URA’, this last phase would be very crucial to examine. In this phase he became a major voice of reasoned and timely criticism, and helped evolve opinion on the major issues of the day with great style and depth of conviction. He worked with a large normative canvas, drawing upon figures like Gandhi, Tagore, Lohia, among others, and strove to appeal to the shared moral intuition of Kannada society and foster critical sensibilities in the present. While not everyone may have found his humanistic views critical enough, or consistent enough, it cannot be denied that he continued the great tradition of literary figures who worked as thesakshi prajne of society.
It is striking that so many of URA’s writings struggle to understand the distinctiveness of India. Even his last book, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, expresses incredulity about how Indian society makes space for contrary ethical attitudes. In the book, he points to the recurring philosophical distrust towards the value of temporal power in India. Basavanna, the 12th century vacana poet and founder of Virasaivism in Karnataka, said that the flesh of a dead rabbit could at least be eaten while a king’s corpse was not even worth an areca nut. And, Purandaradasa, a saint-poet from the 16th century, remarked that even the noblest power was worthless. Yet, at the same time, the popular hold of songs in praise of valourous heroes who killed large numbers of people in war, remains strong.11
He found it mysterious that an ascetic who had given up everything could transcend the bounds of language, religion, caste, and appeal to the whole country. For him Gandhi’s emergence as a leader was ‘mysterious’, because most great leaders until then had come from either Bengal or Maharashtra.12
An older essay, ‘In Search of Identity’, narrates a gripping anecdote. A painter travelling in North India wishes to photograph a kumkum smeared stone idol in a farmer’s home. He brings it outside to take a picture and then wonders if his camera had polluted it. But the farmer asks him not to worry since another stone could easily substitute for it. URA doubts whether the modern Indian can understand how the farmer’s mind worked.13
In a speech delivered a few years ago in Kozhikode, ‘An Indian Writer Called Basheer’, URA explains what made the great Malayalam writer, Basheer, an Indian writer by comparing him to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the 19th century saint philosopher from Bengal.14 Paramahamsa narrated his stories in street, or kaccha, Bangla, and not in literary Bangla. The chief quality of his stories, which blended truth with compassion, is the element of commonness (saamaanyattva) in their language. Basheer, too, wrote in everyday Malayalam. For URA, Basheer’s writings about Kerala’s Muslim society, where practices from diverse traditions thickly cohere, are rooted in a deep humanism derived from Sufi philosophy and Advaitic thought.
Noting that literature could help humans overcome their murderous instincts, URA claims that Basheer’s stories embodied this virtue. He says: ‘Basheer’s work brought together the depths of his religious and spiritual experiences, his humanistic mind and a sublime sense of humour. Only saints are capable of such a sense of humour. Parmahamsa discussed his spiritual ideas through similarly humourous stories.’15 These shared qualities made them both Indian. For URA, it seems, Indianness (Bharatiyeete) was a poetic vision (kavya drishti) found in saints and writers, available for everyone to experience.
* All quotes from the original Kannada are translated by the author of this essay.
1. U.R. Ananthamurthy, Prajne Mattu Parisara (Consciousness and Material Reality). Akshara Prakashana, Heggodu,  1971, pp. 5-11.
2. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘The Future of the Kannada Novel,’ in Prajne Mattu Parisara (Consciousness and Material Reality). Akshara Prakashana, Heggodu  1971, p. 46
3. U.R. Ananthamurthy, Sannivesha (Context). Akshara Prakashana, Heggodu, 1974, pp. 5-6.
4. Ibid., p. 6.
5. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘Mata, Dharma, Ityadi’ (Religion, Dharma, Et Cetera), Valmikiya Nevadalli (Valmiki as Pretext). Abhinava Prakashana, Bengaluru, 2006, pp. 116-117.
6. Bruno Latour has used Bharathipura to illustrate his argument against the epistemic fallacy of modern reformers who impute belief to the actions of the non-moderns and proceed to rid them of it with iconoclastic gestures. See Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, pp. 25-29, 41-44; Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 266-292.
7. U.R. Ananthamurthy, Hindutva Athava Hind Swaraj? (Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?). Abhinava Prakashana, Bengaluru, 2014, p. 97.
8. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘Tradition and Creativity’, in N. Manu Chakravarthy (ed.), The UR Ananthamurthy Omnibus. Arvind Kumar Publishers, New Delhi,  2007, pp. 341-373.
9. U.R. Ananthamurthy, op. cit., fn 3, 1972. p. 8.
10. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘Dalita Sahitya’, in Chandan Gowda (ed.), Sahitya Sahavasa (In the Company of Literature). Aharnishi Prakashana, Shimoga, forthcoming, 2015.
11. U.R. Ananathamurthy, op. cit., fn 7, p. 5.
12. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘Spirituality United Gandhi and Ambedkar’, (interview with Chandan Gowda), Outlook, 8 September 2014.
13. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘In Search of Identity: A Kannada Writer’s Viewpoint’, in Sudhir Kakar (ed.), Identity and Adulthood. Oxford University Press, New Delhi,  1979.
14. U.R. Ananthamurthy, ‘An Indian Writer Called Basheer’, Sadhya Mattu Shashvata (The Immediate and the Eternal). Ankitha Prakashana, Bengaluru, 2008, pp. 201-213.
15. Ibid., pp. 212-213.
The nation state of India: a storyteller’s narrative
U.R. Ananthamurthy, who recently passed away, was essentially a novelist and short story writer, even though he also wrote poetry, essays and criticism, besides translating several works. The book he wrote during the last few days of his life, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj? (Abhinava, Bengaluru, 2014), carries the stamp of a storyteller, though it is more an extended essay on modern India. Here Ananthamurthy examines the idea of the Indian nation as perceived by Gandhiji and Savarkar not only as two streams of political thought of our times, but also as two distinct metaphors for human tendencies and aspirations at all times. It was a work he persisted with even as his health deteriorated, determination alone keeping his strength up. The book was published posthumously.
In retrospect it appears that an incident which occurred a few months before his death provided a context and provocation for him to take on this project. Ananthamurthy had declared in one of the public functions in the days preceding the general elections of 2014 that ‘he would not want to live in an India that chooses Narendra Modi as its prime minister.’ Some Kannada newspapers carried his statement on their front pages. Don’t be misled into believing that a very ‘literary atmosphere’ prevails in Karnataka where statements of writers are routinely carried on front pages of newspapers. The newspapers not only twisted and sensationalized his statement, but also carried a series of readers’ responses that spewed venom on him for days on end. Not all of them were tabloids; some were among the most respected newspapers of Karnataka.
The hate campaign only intensified after the election results were declared. An anonymous Modi admirer sending Ananthamurthy a one-way ticket to Pakistan also became big news in these papers. Interestingly, the ‘would not want to’ in his statement had become a more definitive ‘will not’ by the time it was carried in print. Well known economist Amartya Sen, who went by this mistranslation in English newspapers, advised Ananthamurthy to ‘stay in India and fight Modi’s politics’. Being a mere vernacular Kannada writer, Ananthamurthy did indeed need unsolicited advice from a cosmopolitan intellectual like Amartya Sen! There was an inescapable irony in that episode. It was the literal meaning of an utterance of Ananthamurthy – a poet who chased after nuances of words and the silences between them all his life – that got foregrounded, twisted and publicized at the fag end of his life. How traumatic all this must have been for him!
Ananthamurthy always participated in public debates with great enthusiasm, more so when they centred around him. But he was disheartened by this controversy which was so full of intolerance and hatred. What made him distraught was the fact that all the ire was inspired by a political ideology and was not just directed against him as an individual.
What does it mean for a writer, any individual for that matter, to be a ‘citizen’ of this country? Can we keep a few ‘others’ out, assuming that a certain language, a certain religion and a certain notion of nation alone are ‘ours’, just as we assume that the money in our pockets, our house and our bank account are ‘ours’? Is ‘nation’ an imagined community that goes beyond such definitions? Or is it an enforced community that suppresses these very questions? The title of Ananthamurthy’s book encompasses all these questions. He brings the views of two political activists and thinkers of modern India, Gandhiji and Savarkar, face-to-face to debate the kind of democracy India should shape itself into. Being fundamentally a poet and a storyteller and not a sociologist, Ananthamurthy contemplates what it is to be an Indian citizen as a man from a village in Malnad, as a Kannadiga, as a man with a family and a human being. It is beyond him to imagine what it is to be an Indian citizen further than these identities. Two of his poems can be closely read to understand the mind that shaped this work.
Ananthamurthy wrote the poem ‘Advanigondu Kivimathu’ (An advice to Advani) in 1991. It was the time of Ram Janmabhoomi agitation led by Advani. It addresses Advani who had made the identity politics that equated ‘I am an Indian’ with ‘I am a Hindu’ into an agenda. The narrator of the poem appears to be telling Advani that he carries several identities beyond that of a ‘Hindu’, all equally authentic.
If asked ‘Who are you?’ in London
‘I am an Indian.’
To mark, ‘Sorry, not a Paki.’
A Kannadiga in Delhi,
A man from Malnad in Bengaluru,
From Theerthahalli in Shimoga,
From my native village Melige in Theerthahalli,
In Melige, of course,
Of a certain caste and so-and-so’s son.
I think I am all these with no effort.
My grandmother breathed her last
Like her grandmother
Drinking ‘Ganga’ from
The tiny brass vessel in God’s enclosure.
There is still some ‘Ganga’ left
In the same corroded vessel.
My grandmother did not have to
Give her address like me.
Neither did Yajnavalkya.
Salutations to ancestors.
The narrator here is saying that his identity is ‘Indian’ when he is in England, ‘south Indian’ when in India, ‘Kannadiga’ in South India, ‘man from Malnad’ in Karnataka, ‘man from Theerthahalli’ in Malnad, ‘man from Melige’ in Theerthahalli and of a specific caste and parentage within the native village of Melige. Thus, the identity grows increasingly specific as the geographic reference narrows down. For the narrator, the village in which he grew up is a tangible reality while the country is an abstract idea. The village is his own, the country an identity.
His short poem ‘Ooru-Desha’ (Village-Country) presents this more directly.
To live, to die, a village
To win, to lose, a country
To walk the bylanes, a village
To know the highways, a country
To know, to be, a village
To aim, to aspire, a country
To sob, a village; to count, a country
To chat, a village; to venerate, a country
One for love
Another for pride
To live, a village
To imagine, a country
One, a story
For a poet and a storyteller, his village, his locality, his family and the joys and sorrows of his people are more real than the symbols of a nationalist identity. His village and his life at home are the body and breath of his poems and stories. The idea of a nation is not part of his lived experience. It is not a ‘story’, but ‘history’.
All modern nations – including democracies – are based on force or the manufacturing of people’s consent. Ananthamurthy treats this propensity of a nation with suspicion, not only in the context of this work but in all his short stories and novels. His position is that of a skeptic on science, development and rationality that progressive thinkers argue are essential to society. One could, as an illustration, examine an episode from his novel Bharathipura(1973) that explores the ‘possibilities and limitations of social revolution.’
The protagonist Jagannatha is a Brahmin, and a leftist who has been educated in England. In an attempt to demonstrate that all people are equal, he asks the Dalits of his village to touch the holy saligrama stone that is worshipped in the gods’ enclosure in his house. He requests, preaches and pressures them to do so. When they do not yield, he uses force to make them touch the saligrama. The Dalits do it, but only out of fear. Jagannatha is then confused about the meaning of this exercise. A leftist with unquestioning allegiance to a text or a party may never face such dilemmas. He may not see it as force. Can values of democracy, equality and brotherhood be established through force? Is it desirable to do so? Perhaps only writers can ask these questions with a moral urgency in these times. I can cite many instances from Ananthamurthy’s work where he takes this ambivalent position at the risk of being dubbed anti-progress and status quoist. In the Kannada context, he very often invited the tag of being ‘regressive’.
What kind of nation do we need today? Ananthamurthy examines this question in ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’ not through the tools of the discipline of sociology, but from the perspective of a creative writer. It is because he is a storyteller that he can write about those who died in the Gujarat carnage thus: ‘There were no last rites performed for those who died in the Gujarat communal riots. It does not appear like they are haunting anybody as ghosts either. Like our leader Modi said with great aplomb, the poor humans did indeed die like dogs that come under the wheels of speeding cars’ (p. 35).
The writer may not be accurate in his understanding of the beliefs of Muslims towards their dead or their rituals, but what is he driving at when saying this? That none remember the ill-fated Muslims who died in the riots barring their closest relatives. To Ananthamurthy, this is as appalling as the deaths. Party-loyalist leftists always believe that ultimate victory is bound to be theirs. But Ananthamurthy, as a writer, can examine the alternative routes to emancipation.
Placing Gandhiji face-to-face with Savarkar, he writes: ‘There are two important nuggets in our past: the sorrow of Dharmaraya after the victory in the war and the sorrow and compassion of Thathagatha Buddha that liberated him and has kept him relevant to this day. Savarkar’s idea of India inspires us to slay the enemy. It does not give us calm and composure. The story of Srirama Pattabhishekha is a glorious Purana, a matter of pride. But what we need for our emancipation are the Upanishads and Buddha’ (p. 45).
Anathamurthy is not to be mistaken for an apolitical person who kept his distance with realpolitik because he was a poet and a novelist. He was widely read in modern political ideologies and was acquainted with the nation states as they exist today through reading and travel. Girish Karnad was right when he said recently that Ananthamurthy was not an original thinker. This was not said to denigrate him. Ananthamurthy’s world view is essentially eclectic and syncretic in nature. He is a good translator besides being a poet, essayist and novelist. The list of poets he translated – Rilke, Blake, Yeats, Brecht, Lao-Tzu – is proof enough that synthesis and curation were two distinct markers of his creative talent. This is evident even in ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’
Ananthamurthy did not expect perfection either as a political thinker or a creative writer. Political leaders with visions of a perfect society gradually turn dictators. Those who expect a perfect religion, where there are no sinners, turn fundamentalists. If despotism is political dictatorship, fundamentalism is religious dictatorship. As a writer, for Ananthamurthy the entire world exists in a state of impurity and imperfection. Nobody can make mistakes or hold inappropriate views in a perfect political and religious regime. Ananthamurthy asks how anyone can be alive, making no mistakes and without a single bad habit. There is no ambiguity in the choice Ananthamurthy makes between the worldviews of Savarkar and Gandhiji.
The long essay implies that it is impossible to choose the path of Gandhiji without completely rejecting the path of Savarkar. But he also says that he could not live in Gandhiji’s ashram that had no room for any addictions (p. 60). The world of a writer is never perfect. It always enters our world of experience dented and impure. A story cannot come alive in a perfect society or a perfectly happy family. Good and evil are like light and shade, one a continuation of the other and not its opposite. The truth is always akin to the lie. Not just that, it is always only the liar who knows what the truth is.
In his work Ananthamurthy portrays the worldviews of Gandhiji and Savarkar as night and day, light and shade, continuation, reflection, twinned and counterfoil for each other. Gandhiji’s birth and death are twin creations of modern India. Yes, Gandhiji was the father of the nation, but his assassin Godse was no less popular. Godse’s statement during his trial is like the pronouncement of a manifesto for the modern Indian nation. It was not without reason that the Indian government banned the circulation of the statement that carried a rhetoric powerful enough make the strongest of skeptics forget himself. Ananthamurthy borrowed from his intimate friend Ashis Nandy the argument on how the contradictions in the streams of thoughts of Savarkar and Gandhiji fed off each other and had a strange coexistence. He, in fact, acknowledges this debt in the book (p. 30).
‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’ can also be read as Ananthamurthy’s search for his own self. What is it to be a ‘citizen’ of post-Independence India? This is for him a moral question. The book, which appears to be the last personal testament of Ananthamurthy, echoes the voice of many prominent Kannada writers. Kannada’s first important short story writer, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, novelist and poet Kuvempu and poet Gopalakrishna Adiga have been discussed in this book. The nation state and organized religion were never a major theme or an ideal for modern Kannada writers.
The lone exception to this is perhaps S.L. Bhairappa’s Aavarana (Sahitya Bhandara, Hubballi) published in 2007. The novel serves up notions of state, religion and history from a Hindutva perspective through the story of an inter-religious marriage and a troubled conjugal relationship. Bhairappa presents the individual as a citizen, the follower of a religious faith and one who abides by the norms set by society. He has an existence only as part of a community. But Ananthamurthy sees the individual as lonely and helpless. But the same individual can turn into a beast when he acquires an identity as part of a nation state, a community, a religion or a language group. That is why Ananthamurthy views all communitarian identities – of the left, right, based on language or religion – with suspicion.
This suspicion is an important driving force behind ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’ too. He writes: ‘The British who adopted a policy of divide and rule turned us into a country of mutually suspicious communities. But what operates at a personal level, as people bound by family ties, is a moral consciousness of trust. A community has no soul or its own brain. Hindus and Muslims turned into communities that lived, dined and played separately’ (p. 36).
Does an individual in becoming the citizen of a nation state become part of a community of beasts? If so, how many types of violence would a person have to indulge in, or at least give consent to, in order to become a citizen of India in the present time? Is Indian democracy all about the majority subjugating the rest? Ananthamurthy’s essay asks these questions with the urgency of an individual searching his soul. But for Savarkar these are not moral questions. For him India is not a construct that took shape at a certain historical time. Rather, India is for him an eternal and metaphysical entity. While a nation appears to Savarkar like a weapon-wielding goddess of power, to Gandhiji it appears like a possibility of violence and subjugation. That is why Gandhiji was opposed to the idea of a ‘strong’ nation with armed forces and tools of modern production. He rejected the idea that India should emerge as a powerful nation in this sense. His association and dialogues with Rabindranath Tagore inspired him to review his idea of nationality. Ananthamurthy’s idea that the notion of a nation, particularly of India, gives legitimacy to violence and oppression too is influenced by Tagore. He refers to Tagore’s story Gora (1909) in the essay (p. 60). The novel appears to expose not only the oppressive nature of Savarkar’s ideology, but also the deception inherent in it.
Ananthamurthy asks whether we are only witnesses to the violence as citizens of India or also its beneficiaries. The model of ‘economic development’ heartily embraced by people and political parties of the left, right and centre contains violence and oppression within itself. In ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’, Ananthamurthy calls this model of economic development the ‘evil’ of our times. He writes with the intensity of a poet: ‘I am trying to see the myriad forms of evil that surround us and reside within us. The evil of our times are mines, dams, thermal power plants, hundreds of smart cities, shade-less wide roads that have swallowed up avenues of trees, rivers that have lost their way and ended up washing the toilets in five-star hotels, hills that were once temples to tribal people rendered barren by mining, bazaars without sparrows and artificial green trees that no birds perch on…’ (p. 15).
This model of development that Ananthamurthy describes as evil has not only destroyed nature but also rendered poor farmers and forest dwellers bankrupt. They have been driven out of their homes and communities, and livelihoods of artisans have been destroyed. Modern India has seen the emergence of a new category of people called ‘development refugees’. All citizens of this country are equal before law. But how many varieties of citizenry do we have? There are those who have ‘vanished’ (like in Kashmir), those who do not know which country they belong to and are suspicious of their neighbours (as in Assam or any other state where there are Bengali-speaking Muslims or even other Muslims), development refugees, those homeless in their own land (Muslims living in refugee camps following a riot) and half citizens (dalits, slum dwellers, beggars, handicapped people, orphans and so on) who live on the fringe of society. Who even decides where the fringe begins?
These are only a few categories of citizenry that can be named. Neither the state machinery nor the civil society allows them in their vicinity. Our left parties and their trade unions that speak endlessly about the oppressed classes also go nowhere near them. It is not only in India that there are so many categories of people who do not qualify to be called ‘citizens’ and carry no markers of identity. There are many such communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. For instance, Hindus, Shias, Ahmadiyas and Christians in Pakistan; Hindus in Bangladesh; Tamils in Sri Lanka and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. All these countries were colonies which eventually emerged as nations. If Ananthamurthy had lived longer, he would have constructed wider narratives on death and destruction caused in the process of communities reshaping themselves as nation states. It takes a talent like Ananthamurthy to narrate the great tragedy of this process in the Indian subcontinent.
Ananthamurthy had spoken to me on the phone about the essay he was writing a few months before his death. He had told me that he perceived the entire subcontinent as his country and that his essay would discuss the crisis faced by Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar as well. The published work talks only about India. But he would surely have expanded its scope to encompass the subcontinent if only he had the time.
He had also told me about the last fast of Gandhiji that had drawn his attention. The pain, loneliness and regret that Gandhiji felt during that last fast had deeply touched Ananthamurthy. Gandhiji was not in the national capital during the celebrations of Independence Day. He was not in a frame of mind for celebration on that day. Ananthamurthy discusses this (p. 72) as well as the last fast of Gandhiji (pp. 67, 72) in the book. It was the first-ever hunger strike of independent India. When asked whom he addressed through his fast, Gandhiji had replied: ‘All citizens of India and Pakistan.’
The last fast of Gandhiji had as its backdrop the violence of Partition. Gandhiji started his fast unto death on 13 January 1948, in Delhi. Everyone was opposed to it in the Congress party, including Nehru and Patel. The entire North India was under the cloud of communal tensions. The city of Delhi was filled with Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab. Hindu fundamentalists were provoking the common people to take revenge for the violence committed by Muslim fundamentalists in Punjab. Local Muslims became victims of this provocation. In such a situation, Gandhiji had embarked on the fast to remind a nation and its people of their duties.
The conditions he had laid to end his fast appear like moral codes for all times:
1. Eviction of Muslims from Delhi should be immediately stopped.
2. The urs at the dargah of Khwaja Kutubuddin, postponed to maintain law and order, should be held immediately.
3. Mosques turned into gurdwaras and temples should be returned to the Muslim community immediately.
4. Muslims of Delhi should get protection within their homes.
5. The undeclared excommunication of Muslim citizens should end.
6. The sum of Rs 55 crore that India was to pay Pakistan following the Partition as per an agreement, which was held back by the Indian government because of the attack on Kashmir, should be paid immediately.
It was only after all political leaders, social activists, RSS leaders, the leaders of Hindu Mahasabha and others agreed to these conditions that Gandhiji ended his fast on 18 January. He was assassinated on 30 January.
The country has today forgotten the dharma and raja dharma upheld by Gandhiji’s last satyagraha. Gandhiji was not laying down a moral code that was beyond a government or its citizenry. The conditions he had laid down were the bare minimum duties of any government and people with a sense of dignity. But to this day, Gandhiji is vilified for asking India to pay Rs 55 crore to Pakistan and the rest is forgotten. Ananthamurthy should have written more on this satyagraha considering the central theme of his essay and the sense of despair with which he wrote it. Ananthamurthy felt battered by such episodes towards the end of his life. He often said that the courageous struggles of people like Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy and Teesta Setalvad, against all odds, were an inspiration to him (p. 14). But the biggest inspiration for Ananthamurthy was Gandhiji. Writing about Gandhiji’s life and ideas in the present time, when Savarkar’s ideology appears to have gained an upper hand, was the ‘duty of despondency’ (as Ram Manohar Lohia would have put it).
‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’ appears to have been written, in turn by an emotional poet and a realist prose writer who constantly views his own experiences with skepticism. Savarkar’s Hindutva is a political ideology, a programme to bring people together under the banner of religion in an attempt to take control of state power. Religion for Savarkar is no more than an instrument. But Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj has no design to usurp state power. Democracy is an integral part of the notion of Hind Swaraj. Gandhiji called himself a sanatani. But the religion he had deep faith in was neither indebted to nor enamoured by state power.
Ananthamurthy compares Savarkar’s instrumentalist and utilitarian attitude towards religion to Gandhiji’s religious faith as a poet and a storyteller. Muslims and Christians are not full-fledged citizens of India like Hindus in Savarkar’s ideology. He argues that for Hindus India is both janmabhoomi(motherland) and punyabhoomi (holy land). For non-Hindus, it is only a place of birth. Their holy lands lie outside India. For instance, Mecca, the holy land for Muslims, is in Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem, the holy land for Christians, is currently in Israel. But for Gandhiji, the Upanishadic pronouncement ‘Ishavasyamidam Sarvam…’ (this entire universe is pervaded by the Lord Hari) was part of his faith and practice.
Ananthamurthy describes the nature of Gandhiji’s religious faith by narrating an incident from the life of Ramana Maharshi. A foreigner writes to Ramana Maharshi wishing to embrace Hinduism and expressing his desire to visit the ‘punyabhoomi’ of Hindus. He replied to the man asking how only some specific places on earth can be punyabhoomi when the whole universe is the Lord’s creation (p. 57). While Savarkar saw India as the punyabhoomi of the Hindus, for Gandhiji, even the holiest of holy places, Kashi, appeared like a garbage pile. Even the Vishwanath temple did not appear holy to him. During his time there was no entry for Dalits in this temple. Gandhiji never entered any temple that imposed such a restriction (p. 57). He refused to enter the Jagannath temple when visiting Puri. As an illustration of the nature of Gandhiji’s religious faith, Ananthamurthy recalls that he had gone on a day-long fast as repentance on learning that his wife Kasturba had secretly visited the temple. While the practice of Savarkar’s Hindutva involved taking over state power, the practice of Gandhiji’s Hindu dharma lay in following the path of truth and justice. Much like the dharma of our Vachanakara Basavanna, who said ‘Dayave dharmada moolavayya…’ (Compassion is the root of religion.)
Ananthamurthy narrates the disastrous consequences of India’s choice of the developmental model – in contrast to the Gandhian ideals expressed in ‘Hind Swaraj’ – through poetic metaphors. He says that this model of development sees the earth as ‘Akshaya Patre’ (cornucopia). Not just capitalist countries, but even the so-called socialist countries like China see the earth and its resources as inexhaustible and meant only for the consumption of humans. It is also true that there are no differences of opinion between leftists and fundamentalists on the question of the developmental model.
In the flow of his argument Ananthamurthy says: ‘In Marx’s imagination, the production process can be accelerated to a point where the state withers away because the earth is a cornucopia of resources’ (p. 22). But Marx saw the human being as part of nature. Even workers need clean air and light. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argues that environmental pollution becomes the foundation of life in a capitalist system. Engels had clearly stated that conquest of nature need not be celebrated as a great victory and that nature will take its own revenge for every such conquest. He warned of the natural and social consequences of all our actions while writing about the discovery of America by Columbus and the start of the slave trade. His work, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, in particular, is centred around the destruction of nature as a consequence of industrialization.
When his close friend, the journalist Ramzan Dargah, brought this to his attention, Ananthamurthy apparently admitted to an error of judgement. He asked Ramzan Dargah to write a note, which he had promised to append as a postscript to the essay. Ananthamurthy ends with the sentence: ‘The earth will begin to speak when production reaches a point of nausea after endless gobbling up of resources.’ This feeling of nausea after gluttony is already a reality in America and Western Europe. But can India ever reach that state? India, unlike America, is not an imperialist power. It cannot even be a colonial power. That is why these words of Ananthamurthy sound like the burp of a hungry man. But it is not in his nature to speak like a prophet. Though he often writes with the passion of a poet, the dominant tone of ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’ is finally that of a skeptic.
Ananthamurthy has often called himself a ‘critical insider’. Such a writer cannot write about the phenomena of his own time with the indulgence and sentimentality of a poet. It is abundantly clear, in every page of the book, that he rejects Savarkar’s ideas outright. He believes that this philosophy can enamour people at certain points in history which only intensifies its potential for evil. Gandhiji’s ideas do not have the same mass appeal. This is, in fact, one of the reasons for Ananthamurthy’s enormous respect for Gandhiji.
Besides Gandhiji, Ananthamurthy presents Lohia, Nehru, Ambedkar, Marx and Indian Marxists as potential choices before India against Savarkar. He does not accept Gandhiji with the same unambiguous certainty with which he rejects Savarkar. He does not forget the fact that Gandhian ideology is being relegated further and further to the background day by day. Gandhiji is for him a pole star. An ideal, yes, but beyond reach. He has written this essay as if groping to find a path in the darkness of our times when no alterative politics is visible.
Ananthamurthy, the socialist, had to operate in troubled times when right-wing politics had gained an upper hand and the left had lost its lustre. The despair that made him declare he would not want to live in an India where Narendra Modi was victorious is also what made him write ‘Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?’
* Translated from Kannada by Bageshree S.
** G. Rajashekhar is the author of Kagodu Satyagraha, a recounting of the peasant movement in a village in Karnataka.
State of nature (Prakriti)
TALKING as if words were exploding out of his mouth like popcorn from a frying pan, what will it get him? Narayana, standing on one leg and learning against a pillar, a sour look on his downcast face, was shaking as if a demon possessed him. Sankappayya was contorted with anger.
Great, the boy has finally grown up. Who else would have the nerve to talk back to the man who gave him birth? How fashionable he looks, hair combed back, fancy scarf around the neck, like a city loafer; probably has a packet of bidis and a box of matches in his pocket, too.
Sankappayya went on snickering and slicing the areca nut.
Sitamma peeked out of the kitchen, and seeing her husband and son confronting one another, she went back to grating coconut. After putting the sandigeout in the courtyard to dry in the sun, Lakshmi came out on the verandah and stood there. Unable to look into her father’s eyes as he wiped the sweat away with a kerchief, while her brother stood there on one leg in that strange posture, she felt a little uneasy. She went into the kitchen and asked, ‘What’s going on, Mother?’ Sitamma only said ‘Shh!’ and Lakshmi fell silent.
Shanta came running up, the hem of her skirt in her hand. Not understanding why her father and brother were confronting one another but enjoying the show, she put her chin on Sankappayya’s shoulder and brought her lips near his ear. ‘Can I get you some lime for your betel nut?’ She looked mischievously at her brother. How vain he is, with the notebook and pen in his pocket. Once a week, flashlight in hand, he goes to town to see a film and never takes me. Yet, if Appa so much as looks at him, he almost starts to cry. But she didn’t say anything. She was afraid he might hit her when Father wasn’t looking.
Shanta, untying Sankappayya’s knotted tuft of hair, quipped, ‘Uttara’s brave only in front of the kitchen fire,’1 in response to the conversation between mother and son that could now be heard from where she was sitting with her father on the verandah. She laughed, but glancing at her father’s face she felt confused.
Mother, I’m telling you, that 20,000 rupee debt Father incurred is something he has to answer for himself. I wasn’t born to rot in this hole. Your brother has asked me to join him in running a restaurant in Shimoga. I tell you, I’m ready to leave home this minute, just in the clothes I’m wearing. My relationship with father is finished.
Sankappayya stood up, brushing aside Shanta’s hand as she playfully twisted his mustache. Shanta, who was already feeling confused, didn’t know what else to do and began biting her nails.
Nani, why should you be angry with me? You know he doesn’t listen to what I have to say either. Thousands were poured into that useless orange grove madness. The whole village told him not to do it – did he listen? ‘The rest of the world can go to hell’ – that’s how he feels, and he can’t see beyond his own nose. Six years, and not one crop harvested.
Oranges will never grow in that cursed piece of land, isn’t that what the village officer himself said to Father, over and over again? As if talking to a parrot.
In this cursed hole, it’s the same story every day. I’m sick and tired of struggling. Today, a tiger picks off a cow; tomorrow, a leopard picks off a dog. I can’t keep count any more. Kogga was saying it now seems that a wild elephant is stomping around somewhere. As if that weren’t enough, blight has hit the areca nut crop, and malaria has struck again. Tell me, son, why live and die here if you can’t see a single paise coming into your pocket?
Isn’t that the truth, Mother. Why doesn’t he listen to Shanbhog, at least? He’s the village officer and he given his son his consent to open the restaurant with me. At least that boy is lucky.
No doubt, but what sin I committed in a past life, to wind up marrying him, I don’t know. What you gained by being born in my womb I don’t know. The golden necklace with four strands that my father gave me, along with the earrings and the gold belt – have I been able to keep them? No, it’s all gone to the bank for that orange grove madness. If I still had them, I would have given them to you, and told you to do what you want and be happy.
You know, Mother, it’s not as simple as he thinks. This is hereditary property we’re talking about. I have rights too. Do you understand what I’m saying? Father needs to understand this, and then talk to me.
Shanta wondered why Father didn’t go and slap her brother’s face. She stared in disbelief at her father with her big eyes.
As if these weren’t blessings enough, it wasn’t six months after her marriage that Lakshmi lost her husband and came back home with her forehead bare.2 I had told him not to tie my daughter to the neck of Devayya’s son. But does either of us have a voice in this house? When he heard that his son-in-law died, did he shed a single tear? Without a word he went straight to his cursed orange grove. Let me tell you, his sin couldn’t be washed away even in seven lifetimes. What’s the point of this farming of his when it brings the family no happiness? Why he gives his children such grief, God only knows.
Why are you crying, Mother?
Untying the string of dried ranja flowers from her hair, Shanta looked curiously at her father’s contorted face. Like a man possessed, Sankappayya angrily lunged at Kariya, the servant standing outside the gate with his arms folded across his chest. ‘Get to work!’ he shouted, and began pacing back and forth. Then he stood still as if trying to remember something.
My stomach churns, Nani, when I start to think about Lakshmi. Doesn’t she want to live happily like other women? Her father may think it is enough for her to have his face to look at. Listen, son, I want to go with you wherever you are. I can’t live here like dirt beneath his feet. I want to get out of this hole, and live happily with my son – if only for a day or two.
I’ll take care of it, Mother. He can’t lord it over me any more. Kittanna and your brother and I will open a restaurant in Shimoga. Done. Let the sky fall down; I won’t be afraid.
Sankappayya appeared before them with such sudden force that Narayana’s voice caught in his throat. Shanta laughed at her brother as he began to retreat, step by step, deeper into the kitchen in embarrassment. Sitamma, looking at the figure of her husband standing there, lowered her head and returned to grating the coconut, now a mere shell. His whole body irritated by the scraping sound, Sankappayya felt like bashing in his wife’s head, and only gained control of his anger by clenching the rod of the milk-churn.
‘Narayana, enough!’ he said, raising his voice. ‘If I don’t give you money to open a restaurant, what are you going to do about it?’ With that, he took the rod and rammed it to the bottom of the churn. Narayana swallowed the thought that he would go to court to get his share if necessary, and lowered his head.
Sankappayya turned to his wife, who was thinking: when he starts screaming, it’s as if the very tiles are going to fly off the roof. And he said in a softer but still angry voice, ‘Was it Lakshmi herself that told you what bliss it is to live with her father, or was that your own nonsense? Speak up!’
Looking at Sitamma’s ugly, crimson face while she grated the empty coconut shell, he felt disgusted. How hideous she is, he thought. And yet – wasn’t she his wedded wife? He had never even looked at another woman in his life. Still, she had joined sides with her son and now was standing against him. ‘Pshaw!’ he mumbled in disgust as he went back to the verandah. Drying his armpits with the cloth he carried, he said in a very soft voice, ‘Where is Lakshmi, Shanta?’
As he passed through the shrine room, he said out loud, ‘Absolutely not, impossible! They can stand on their heads if they want. As the elder of the family, the one who performs the Vow to the Cosmic Serpent, to the Golden Goddess, to the Elephant-headed God, I’m not about to listen to this puny boy or this money-hungry wife, and give away the deed to the garden and rice fields that my family has worked for generations in a desperate struggle with the hills. And for what? To sell food in a restaurant – for a Brahman to sell food in Shimoga, of all things! We’ll see who wins this one.’
He stuck the sickle in the belt at his waist as he went out. When Shanta, who was gathering ranja flowers, threw a look at him as if to say, ‘Appa, shall I come with you?’ in his soul he felt a sudden rush of happiness. Yet he said to himself, ‘Even if none of my flesh and blood were here, I would stay on here. On that I’d swear an oath and submit to an ordeal if necessary. That boy is nothing but a sissy, wandering around town smoking bidis. I can cut firewood, three cartloads full, even now. This son will never bring the family honor, will he? I’m going to drag him out of there by the scruff of his neck if he doesn’t hold his tongue. I won’t put up with it any more.’
He walked quickly, climbing the hill behind the house, and saw Lakshmi gathering matti leaves to make shampoo. What did he really want to ask her? Did he want to ask, ‘Was it my fault, Lakshmi, that you had to come back to your father’s house as a longhaired3 widow?’ Or did he want to say, ‘So what if your husband did die? Don’t you have a father who will see to it that you’ll never want for anything?’ He looked at her bare forehead, searching for words. He felt happy when she asked, ‘Where are you off to, Father, in this heat?’ Yesterday, she and Shanta had insisted he take a massage bath and had massaged his body with oil. They had him sit in the tub, and they poured water on him. After the bath, they made the bed and put two rugs on him and said, ‘You have to sweat a lot, Father.’ And as Lakshmi had sat by his side, what had he wanted to say? How could he tell her the things he never felt like saying to his wife, or his son, or his relatives? ‘Lakshmi, this time if the areca price goes up, and I make 5,000 to 6,000 rupees, and get some oranges, too, I’ll pay off the debts and fix up the house.’ Absent-mindedly, Lakshmi, who had been listening to her father, interrupted: ‘Father, why don’t you tell that to Mother, and brother as well?’ Sankappayya then thought to himself, ‘No, that isn’t what I wanted to say.’ It was always like this – if he started to talk, what he felt was one thing, what he said was another. Some tightness inside him never let what was in the heart come into the mouth. ‘I’m coming to eat. Soak the matti leaves, and you and Shanta can bathe. I’ll open the mountain cistern for you,’ he said, and turned away. Lakshmi said, ‘No, don’t Father.’ ‘What has gotten into you that you don’t want to wash your hair?’ he scolded, and went off without waiting for an answer.
What if he were to take from his trunk the silver medal that the district commissioner sahib had given him eight years ago to honour him as the best farmer of Malnad, and to say, ‘Lakshmi, this is for you to keep’? The girl might feel happy. It would be good if Shanta were with me now, he thought. She would be scampering about here and there, picking some wild fruit or other, chattering on and on. Even this child understands, not to speak of Lakshmi. This work isn’t something one does out of greed for money. It, too, is a kind of spiritual discipline, no different from holding back the wild sense organs and demanding they keep still. An act of asceticism. What do you gain running around with your dhoti loose. This is work, not like that sissy’s running a restaurant. That spineless boy has got to understand the difference here. I’ll put the money I get from my areca nut sales into the orange grove, and then we’ll see whether or not the land yields oranges. The men of Kodagu aren’t the only ones who can raise oranges. I’ve only got to keep struggling a while – three, maybe four years. With the money left over after I clear my debts, I’ll put in a kerosene oil pump for the pond at the back of the house, like Krishna Bhatta’s, and I’ll raise whatever can grow in the fallow land to the left of the house.
He stood near the pond, trying to imagine what Lakshmi would say about his plans. (He suddenly remembered her bare forehead as he was letting out the cistern water for her bath.) As long as I’m hale and hearty, what if her husband is dead, or anyone else, why should she be miserable? And he remembered how Lakshmi had finished stringing the ranja flowers Shanta had brought, which the widowed girl herself could never wear again, and how she had wiped tears from her eyes. Sankappayya stood a moment, taken aback, as he let out the water. It may be a natural desire; but why shouldn’t she, too, struggle and exercise self-control, as I do, he thought as he turned toward his garden. We’ll see whether or not I can get oranges out of my garden. They think they can make easy money running a restaurant, but do they have the guts to take me on?
As he entered the sacred grove, he unwound the cloth he wore around his head, and said to himself, ‘From now on I will only eat food cooked by Lakshmi. My wife and son can go to hell. I am still strong. This time, if the price of areca nut goes up, everything will be all right. But what if the boy listens to her brother and takes me to court, what will I do then? Nobody in our family has ever gone to court.’ His pace slowed. ‘Dear God, the son born from my loins, the wife I wed, united against me.’ He picked off the leeches from his feet, and sighed. ‘I don’t care what happens, I won’t give in. If necessary I will ask Lakshmi if what I’m doing is right. If she supports me, we’ll see if they can stick out their tongues at me. I’d cut them to pieces without a moment’s hesitation.’
He stood beside the deep chasm in the middle of the forest, and peered into the depths. When he was young, his father would bring him there, and say, ‘Earth, sometimes, cannot bear the burden of her hills. Then she sinks, and these chasms are created.’ ‘If Shanta were with me,’ he thought, ‘it would be good. "You mean even the earth sometimes trembles, Appa?" she would ask, in wonder, and open her eyes wide and look at me. My soul would then feel cool.’
Sankappayya’s eyes, which had peered into the bottom of the pit, became small and then opened wide and then slowly closed. The sight he had just seen took possession of his body entirely, and he began to tremble. Then he opened his eyes again, looked straight down, fearlessly. Like burning coal was the look of the tiger that was lying at the bottom of the chasm. Yes, just like him it opened its eyes, impassively. It’s true. As if possessed he stood there. Why he didn’t feel like screaming or turning tail was a wonder, a real wonder. What is it he is feeling now, that he doesn’t want to share with anyone, not even with Lakshmi? What is it that came coursing through his whole body, coursing with a roar through his whole body? The only thing that became clear to him was the thought that if one must live, one should live like the tiger. He said this out loud, was surprised he did so, and began to walk.
He started awake, sweating profusely.
A thorn stepped on.
Standing before him was Shanbhog. But he didn’t tell him he saw a tiger in the chasm.
‘Say, Sankappayya, are you heading toward the garden?’ Sankappayya only nodded. As Shanbhog opened his snuff box, he thought it a prelude to further conversation, and stopped absent-mindedly.
‘Why should we stand in the way of the youngsters? Look, Sankappayya, what I want to talk to you about is ... isn’t it all out of our hands? Take for example Lakshmi, did you ever dream that such a thing would ever happen to Lakshmi?’
Ah, Shanbhog. Why should what happened to Lakshmi be of any concern to you? Sankappayya’s brow knitted.
‘The writing of fate can’t be wiped out. That’s why I say it’s futile, all this struggling and wanting things to happen in a particular manner, and pounding your head against a wall about it. Take for instance the orange grove. I tell you, your brother-in-law, my son Kittanna, and your son want to open a restaurant There’s no profit in this farming, I tell you – why beat your head against a hill. There’s more cash in a restaurant, I tell you….’
‘Mind your own business, Shanbhog, and stop shooting off your mouth.’
‘Look at this Brahman’s coarseness,’ thought Shanbhog, his face distorted in an artificial smile. But as he looked at Sankappayya’s eyes, he felt uneasy. Before Shanbhog could recover his composure, Sankappayya left, meditating on the eyes of the tiger that flamed like torches.
As Sankappayya marched off like a soldier, he suddenly wanted to gather red hibiscus flowers by the basketful and worship the goddess Durga. All by himself, on the verandah, he will draw the sacred circle with red powder. In the middle of the circle, he will install the Great Mother. By the time the east turns red, he will have taken the holy bath, and be wearing the red silk lower garment for worship. His forehead will be smeared with sacred ash. With his neck adorned with a necklace of rudraksha beads, he will be chanting the mantras. He will worship the Goddess, so that the forest trembles, and the earth on which you sit trembles. The sinners, sissies, cowards, evil doers will tremble in their hearts. The holy sound of the Vedas will fill the air, and spread all-pervading. And then, riding her tiger, the great Mother Goddess will become visible in actual form. She will embrace him, fondling his whole body. ‘Body, bone, flesh, nerves, I am absorbed into Her.’
‘Shanta should be sitting by my side, wearing the red silk skirt,’ he thought, ‘grinding the sandalwood paste while the oil lamp bums.
‘What does it matter if Lakshmi is a longhaired widow. She should be wearing the yellow cloth of the deity, and sitting by my side in deep meditation.
‘I myself will be worshipping with total absorption, like sugarcane being squeezed in the press. And as I do, on Lakshmi’s forehead there will be a red vermilion dot like a drop of blood, it will smile upon her forehead. It will smile, the entire orange garden will bear red, red fruit. The forest, hill, and valley will become spellbound by mantras, and will fall at my feet The eunuchs and the sissies will be cut to pieces, and their blood will come pouring out. And if in the course of the service that wife of mine dares interrupt, I will rip off her wedding necklace and throw her out of the house,’ he thought. And suddenly he felt giddy.
He saw his garden. It looked like a widow with a shaven head. ‘My areca nut trees, their green foliage once swaying in the wind … why are they all lying about uprooted? Why are the banana trees scattered topsy-turvy like this? And the areca flowers, the betel-leaf creepers, why have they been trampled under foot?’ And he cried out loud, ‘Oh God, Mother!’
‘Hey, Kariya! Are you dead or what?’ he started to scream. There was no answer. ‘Dear God, everything has been destroyed by that wild elephant.’ Stumbling over the areca trees, he ran off.
Kariya was snoring, drunk, on the verandah. Near his head, broken eggs and pieces of bread. All over the verandah jackfruit remains and seeds. The sickle thrown into a corner, after he had lost his senses. From the snoring man’s mouth saliva dripped, telling a tale of sweet dreams.
A water buffalo came lumbering up drawn by the smell of the jackfruit leavings. When the mud on its body rubbed off on him, Sankappayya came to his senses. As his hand went to the sickle at his waist, he felt giddier, and his vision darkened. He struggled to regain his calm for just a moment, but felt sick from the smell of toddy, and turned and left.
In the hot noonday sun, burning straight down on the top of the head, stupor. On hills like dissected limbs.
Where mango tree, jackfruit tree, the blackberry grew here and there in intervals, where cane grew in clusters; in sharp shadows, in the sky filled with fire, indifference and satiety.
Now and then a crow thirsting.
Woodpecker searching for water in a tree. Beyond that, only some bees buzzing. In the muddy ponds, the water buffaloes lying, lowing.
‘Is this all unconnected?’ Sankappayya thought, disoriented. ‘Not the time to be awake and worrying. This is a time to be asleep, and forget oneself. Only if the bones didn’t quarrel with the flesh, and the nerves didn’t quarrel with the heart and with the liver would there be fulfillment Where there is absolute inactivity, fulfillment
‘If the elephant goes on a rampage, let him. Let earth’s mouth gape wide and mock me. I will strangle them both, wife and son,’ he thought.
But something went wrong – one thought kept coming to him again and again. If Lakshmi asked, ‘Why are you acting like this, Father?’ he thought he would say, ‘The elephant entered the garden and everything went wrong.’ In the forest, where not a single being was to be found, he stood alone and said aloud, ‘Oh Lakshmi, an elephant came in, and all my work was destroyed.’
On the way, he picked some cashew fruits thinking Lakshmi would like them. He picked some more fruit, wild white raspberries for Shanta. He thought, ‘If that Shanbhog, or his son Kitta, or his ugly-faced wife, or his own sissy son were to come and give me any advice – "Have you finally learned your lesson, now that the elephant has destroyed the garden? Will you ever pay off your debts, will you ever get fruit out of that orange grove?" – I would smash in their teeth.
‘It’s only because I am walking so fast that my legs are growing weak. Only the hot sun,’ he thought as his eyes grew cloudy. ‘If Krishna Bhatta comes and bothers me for the debts, I will spit in his face,’ he thought, and he tightly gripped the sickle at his waist.
Swallowing spittle to wet his throat, he thought he would call to his wife and say, ‘I won’t drink any water you touch. Get out of the house! Lakshmi and Shanta are here, they will cook my rice.’ As he was thinking this, he realized he had lost his way. He had come to the foothills and became confused. He began to wonder, ‘The path that I have walked all these days, how could I lose it?’ And he looked at the height that his weak legs could not climb.
He wanted to say out loud, ‘I have lost my way.’ ‘I have lost my way,’ he whispered through his parched throat, looking at the cluster of bamboo to his left, and the bush beyond it. He held his hand up to his eyes and wondered what was over there, where the grass had grown almost as tall as a person. And trying to swallow spittle to wet his throat, he went a few steps further.
He felt as if he had tripped over a step. He covered his eyes with his cloth.
Lakshmi lay blissfully, embracing Shambog’s son Kitta in the shade.
‘Have I lost my way?’
Like a light that begins to grow in an earthen lamp, the red-pointed utterance lighted up in the darkness of his mind. Its light began to spread into all the nooks and crannies of his mind. Monkeys on the treetops bared their teeth.
‘Did I lose my way?’
‘No,’ he said, as he stood again on the edge of the chasm, clenched his teeth and looked at the emptiness in the bowels of the chasm. ‘Shall I turn left and go to Krishna Bhatta’s house, or shall I go straight to my house?’ The sharp red sentence was spreading. As he heard footsteps, he remembered the monkey baring its teeth, and turned and looked. Shanbhog was there.
‘Did you hear, Sankappayya?’
‘There was a tiger, it seems, sleeping listlessly in the chasm without a care in the world. The Kogga came up from behind, it seems, and shot at it.’
Like a tree standing calm in every leaf after a storm, Sankappayya stood there. Then he went straight to the house of Krishna Bhatta.
One evening, some six months later, seeing Sankappayya drag his feet along on the edge of the rice field, the city merchant Ahmed Bari greeted him, ‘Salaam.’ Casually starting a conversation he said, ‘I hear you are alone, farming only a rice field, and that you sold your garden and house to Krishna Bhatta and sent all your family to Shimoga. Is it true?’ he said, lighting a bidi. Sankappayya didn’t speak, but nodded his head. He also nodded his head when he was asked whether he had seen how the orange grove had at last blossomed. ‘Krishna Bhatta wanted me to pay 850 rupees, but I said, not more than 700, and I succeeded in bringing him down at last. Do you think I’ll wind up taking a loss?’
‘What a pity, aren’t you bored, living alone?’ asked Bari, and turning his back to the wind carefully lighted up the bidi again.
‘Why should I feel bored,’ said Sankappayya, and went back to his shack.
He didn’t want to eat. Who wants to light up an ash-filled oven, and cook rice? The earthen lamp went out when the wind blew, and he went out to the verandah. Because it was new moon, there was no light. Till midnight, he wandered around the verandah. He took the cloth from his waistband, tied it around his head, came back to the platform made of the wood of the jackfruit tree, and put one of his feet there, feeling weary. When everyone had been ready to go, Shanta had stood near the well, putting her hand on the rim. She had looked at me, he thought, as if to say, I want to stay with you, Appa. I shouldn’t have scolded her. If she were with me now, she would be leaning against me and twisting my gray mustache. And as she breathed upon my neck, I could have stroked her soft black hair.
Sankappayya’s legs ached. He sighed, ‘Ah, Mother,’ and wiped his eyes with his cloth. An old cow belonging to who knows what house came up and sniffed him, and he scratched its neck.
* Translated by the author in collaboration with Sheldon Pollock.
** I am deeply grateful to Narayan Hegde for a number of helpful comments. All remaining errors are my own (SP).
1. Uttara is a braggart in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata (4.34).
2. Hindu wives wear a dot of vermilion on the forehead as an auspicious mark.
3. Hindu widows are often forced to shave their heads. Lakshmi is permitted by her father to wear her hair long.